Darrel Alejandro Holnes is the author of Stepmotherland (Notre Dame Press, 2022) & Migrant Psalms (Northwestern Press, 2021). Holnes is an Afro-Panamanian American writer, performer, and educator. His writing has been published in English, Spanish, and French in literary journals, anthologies, and other books worldwide and online. He also writes for the stage. Most of his writing centers on love, family, race, immigration, and joy. He works as a college professor in New York City, NY. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Veronica Gonzales. Of the process, she said, “Darrel Alejandro Holnes is unafraid and unapologetic when it comes to discussing social issues and personal struggles in his poetry collection, Stepmotherland. His passion for making a difference in both the literary and greater world shines in each poem. It was an absolute honor to bear witness to his exceptional poetic voice and encouragement in both the collection and this interview.” In this interview, Darrel Alejandro Holnes talks about holding poems in your body, learning different languages, and being influenced by both Mariah Carey and Louise Glück.
Superstition Review: In the introduction to the collection, written by John Murillo, he says, “Holnes’s speaker never pretends to have all the answers. He is searching, interrogating, trying to make sense of this life just like the rest of us.” How has writing this collection helped you make sense of the world?
Darrel Alejandro Holnes: The last fifteen years have been tumultuous for most people in the world. Raging gun violence in schools, nightclubs, and other public spaces, major natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, never-ending foreign wars, a pandemic, mass incarceration, an opioid crisis, rising HIV rates in US Black and Latine communities very few people outside medicine talk about, and a global refugee crisis are just a few of the major events that have rocked the world. We all need a way to process, we all need a way to deal. My way of processing these events is through writing, and I hope people who read my book are encouraged to explore writing as a way to process the world around them, as a way to find answers to the questions that plague them about the world, about society, about their families and close relationships, about themselves. Writing and poetry especially is something to show for having survived these traumas. The making of the poems themselves are a celebration of life, its endurance, its survival. Reader, know that I'm celebrating still being alive and I'm rooting for you to make it too. I've "made it" because I've survived and found a way, despite the many horrors in the world, to still thrive. So much of that is thanks to writing. I hope you find a way to "make it" too, perhaps through writing and reading poetry.
SR: In a recent interview with Notre Dame Press, you mentioned how you were influenced by pop songs from Celia Cruz, Rihanna, and Beyonce, who all appear in Stepmotherland. You also say how some of the poems that were inspired by Mariah Carey didn’t make it into the collection. Can you discuss your process for determining which poems have a place in this collection, and will the poems that were not chosen ever appear elsewhere?
DAH: My first love has and will always be music. I started writing poetry because I thought it'd be a way to perfect my craft and find my voice as a songwriter. I am as influenced by Mariah Carey (who writes all of her songs) and Lenny Kravitz as I am by Louise Glück. I am as influenced by RuPaul or Daddy Yankee as I am influenced by Aime Cesaire. I am as influenced by Soul Train and Sabado Gigante reruns as I am by Swan Lake at American Ballet Theatre or Porgy and Bess at the Met Opera. I am not interested in any kind of cultural hierarchy that differentiates between "high art" and "low art" as historically those distinctions devalue art made by Black, Brown, queer, and working-class artists and elevate art made by and made for white elites. I've always found such ideas to be foolish and founded in racism and classism. I am interested in, a student of, and a consumer of it all. And friends, you are what you eat.
The poems that made it into this collection each capture a moment of my growth as a citizen of the world, as a son of Abya Yala, and as a product of the Americas. The book is an invitation for readers to grow with me. The poems that didn't make it into this collection were ones I needed to write as a part of my growth, but perhaps repeated a beat in the book. In the book, as opposed to in life, you can flip back through the book to learn the lesson again, but in life, you have to relive it. I wanted to give my readers a straight shot through these key moments in my life as I know they have the agency to flip back as needed, rather than have me repeat any beats throughout the book. I really enjoy tight poetry collections like Crush by Richard Siken or Please by Jericho Brown partly because it gives me the chance to easily read it several times over and hold the poems closely to my chest. I want this to be a book you can take to heart.
SR: In the section, “Citizen,” your poems focus on important political and social topics. For example, police brutality in “Ferguson, USA” and colorism in “Angelitos Negros.” I truly commend your lyricism in these poems. Can you describe your process of discussing contemporary social movements while maintaining a poetic voice?
DAH: Regarding poetic voice in these poems, "Ferguson, USA" took a long time for me to perfect, probably a year. There were so many versions, and I really only found my way through the poem when I started performing it and found a rhythm in that space between my mouth and the microphone. Every singer or comedian knows that sacred space I'm referring to; it's a creative gap that gets filled with good ideas that only come to you when the mic is in your hand, and you're covered by the audience's eyes and hit with adrenaline. "Angelitos Negros," which includes excerpts of a song, came more easily because I had learned that lesson from "Ferguson" and quickly started performing "Angelitos" at readings, the first of which I believe was Split This Rock Poetry Festival in DC. I remember sitting with the poet Yesenia Montilla and practicing singing "Angelitos" before I went up to share it with the crowd. Again, I found my way through the poem after holding it in my body, after sharing it with the audience. Like communion wine, I guess you can only really know if what you're offering saves people after you've given them a taste.
I learned this thing about working your poems out on stage from folks like Mark Doty and Patricia Smith, who read new work at readings all the time. This development process is similar to what my comedian friends do when they present new material at small venues, or what we playwrights do when our play is in previews. We're all figuring out which approach makes the best impact. Regarding the discussion of contemporary social movements, I can say that I write what I feel (that's the "write what you know" part), and I write what I'm curious about. I write to express, but to also discover, excavate, or recognize. And you can too.
SR: In some of your poems, you include Spanish words and phrases, often without an English translation. For example, the poem, “OTM or Other Than Mexican,” is primarily in Spanish with the only English words being “other than,” “we,” “she,” and “they.” How does being bilingual allow you to add more depth and meaning to your poetry, and in what ways can foreign languages emphasize the social issues you are describing?
DAH: In high school, I had a Spanish teacher named Mr. Rigoberto Cardenas, and he had an etymological dictionary. I grew up speaking Spanish, but when I saw this dictionary in his class, it was love at first sight. I not only fell further in love with Spanish at that moment, but I fell further in love with languages as I learned that many words in Spanish (a language of empire) come from other languages. I started thinking about the ways an idea might be better expressed in a language that is not your first language and that I could make my own language, so to speak, by importing words from any language that I found useful when expressing myself. Since then, I've let go of the idea that any literary work of mine should only be in one language if more than one language best suits the project. Perhaps this is easy for me because I've always been surrounded by various languages.
My grandfather used to speak to me in creole or "patois" as his family was from the French Caribbean, and my attending international schools meant I was also regularly exposed to Mandarin, Arabic, and even languages like Romanian. So for me, it's more than English and Spanish, I'm constantly trying to learn new vocabulary, expressions, and idioms in other languages. Finding the right words to best express my ideas (socio-political ideas and non-political ideas) necessitates a high level of language mastery, and my friends who work as translators at the UN inspired me to study at my own pace and to practice whenever I get the chance. When you are persistent and really care about mastering a new skill, you can learn to do anything.
SR: Throughout the collection, there are numerous references and allusions to religion, specifically Christianity and Catholicism. For example, the poem “Pietà by Michelangelo: Marble, 1499” and lines that mention the Book of Corinthians and the Virgin Mary. Can you discuss the importance and role of these religious references in your collection? How does your poetry use religion in order to personify or emphasize your experiences?
DAH: Religion has always been an important tool for humanity to understand and work through questions we have had about the world around us. I was raised Catholic. Catholicism is the most common faith practiced in Panama and throughout all of Latin America and the Caribbean. Because I understand it as and use it as a tool in my own life, that's how it appears in my work as my work is mostly about learning, processing, and process. You know, I've always loved Bob Hass's Time and Materials. He came to the University of Houston Honors College when I was a student there, and I really loved how that book used the concept of revision as a metaphor for maturation. His book is about moving from the autumn into the winter of one's life. My book is also about thinking through transition, and religious stories and iconography can be a fruitful and generative tool for anyone exploring this topic, especially if, like me, you have a personal connection to it through your faith. There is African spirituality in the book too, and a little nod to Buddhism, so keep your eyes peeled when reading for those treasures too.
SR: I’d like to highlight the poem, “Scenes from Operation Just Cause.” While reading, I was very intrigued by how you structured this poem as a script with dialogue while still being poetic. As both a playwright and poet, how does this form exemplify the social issue and message of the poem, and was this the only form that could accomplish that?
DAH: By playing with form here, I am playing with the point of telling and with narrative modalities in a poem that is essentially about memory. The story of the night of the US invasion of Panama is one that has been told to me since I was a child. So what I was recalling wasn't the actual night (although I was there, I am too young to remember most of it), rather, it stems from the memory of being told this story over again. What this poem does in form is provide you, the reader, with a script, which is ultimately a set of instructions for how to visualize a happening, or in this case, a memory. It's in this gap between the signified and the signifier that poetry happens. As a playwright and screenwriter, I am constantly writing poems. As a poet, I am constantly writing plays. Not because the form is the thing, but because these forms have proven to be befitting of the ideas they express.
SR: In another interview with Queen Mobs Teahouse, you said, referencing your background as a musician, “Every time I write in a new form I always try to find the music in it.” I found this approach incredibly interesting. Could you discuss more about finding music in different forms of your art and how your background in music adds more depth to your art?
DAH: The music for me is both the literal music I find by singing my songs aloud, even the lines that are not lyrics in a song, and the music as in the canto in the flor y canto/floricanto, which comes from the heart. I think my classical and jazz training in saxophone trained my ear to listen to words as if they were music. So I hear the song in all speeches, and I imagine it when I read. They say that we Panamanians sing our speech in Spanish by speaking with elongated vowels, in a legato manner where the words are smoothly connected. I'm sure that has something to do with it too. (Wink).
SR: Throughout your work, your identity as Afro-Latinx is especially important in terms of what inspires and informs your writing. With that, how do you suggest aspiring poets from marginalized communities who want to follow in your footsteps use their writings to raise awareness for social issues and make a space for themselves at the table?
DAH: Write about what matters to you and share your work with others, get to know your readers and your audience at every reading you give when possible. It will build a connection with the community through poetry that will inspire you to write more about the issues you have in common. Writing about social issues for me means writing as a community member about a society that you participate in. So if you want to write about social issues, get out there and become an active member of the community. Engage with society even if you don't like that society, and you'll have so much more to say! This is one way we, as poets, can make the world a better place.
SR: Aside from being a writer, you are also a talented musician and performer, an Associate Professor of English at Medgar Evers College, and a previous teacher for theater workshops. How has your experience in these other areas influenced your work as a poet, and in turn, how has your poetry influenced your other roles?
DAH: I constantly learn from my students and they inspire me every day. One of my former mentors, (RIP) Mark Medoff, suggested I start teaching straight out of my MFA program as a way to stay connected with the field while I sort myself out as an emerging playwright, and he was right. It was a great way to nurture my nascent voice as an emerging poet too. I am who I am as a writer today not just because of my mentors and teachers, but also because of my students. I don't create in a bubble; I create as part of a larger ecosystem of content and idea exchange. We all influence each other, and I hope current and former students of mine are proud of this book, and that it inspires them to keep writing, wherever they are.
SR: With your experience as a poet, playwright, and musician, can you describe what form your next project will take on?
DAH: All I can say is that I'm working on something pretty special. Stay tuned.