Interview with poet Kenny Garcia, on New York, writing, and visiting Palestine

Kenny Garcia (Boukra Press, CSU Monterey Bay) & Stephanie Spoto (Old Capitol Books)

Kenny Garcia
“Letter to Langston” by Kenny Garcia

Spoto: In what way do you think poetry is different than prose? Why are you writing this in poetic form rather than as an essay, a short story, or a letter?

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Kenny Garcia reading at the 2021 Monterey Poetry Festival

Garcia: Yeah, I kinda struggle with that. I think poetry forces the writer and the reader to think about the preciseness of words, sometimes poets will take out any extra words in their writing just to highlight the important parts of what they’re trying to say. But then, that causes poets to agonize over every single word, and then I think in prose and other formats it allows writers to develop something more. Poetry, at least my poetry, is short snippets, and that’s why I like to write poetry. I’m always thinking about how to finish a poem. For me, I’m able to finish what I think is a more complete piece of writing as a poem versus an essay format, which might take me longer to finish.

So the poem feels like it can be of a moment, where you write it and you’re finished. Whereas with an essay it feels like something that can take moments.

And with my poetry at least, it comes in my head. So I have to write it down and type it up. And then I’ll revise it over time, but for me it takes less time to go through one poem, even after I’ve revised it a few times, versus trying to revise an essay and adding components to it. So I think it depends on everyone’s writing process.

Some people write every day. Other people write one poem a year. Where do you feel like you are? What’s your writing process? How often to do you engage with it? How do you write a poem?

I feel like I’ve been an off and on poet. I started writing poetry when I was a kid, and I kept writing, but I never got in the habit of writing poetry every day. I will start and then I’ll stop again. I’ll have days or weeks where I’ll write something every day, and then there will be a month of not writing anything. And then life catches up and work catches up and then I’m still writing but not poetry. So it sucks when we have to work and that takes away that creative energy that we all have. It’s a good habit to write poetry every day, and that’s something that I keep telling myself that I strive to do. So I hope that at some point I can get there where I write every day.

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Inwood, a neighborhood of New York City (From New York City Minute)

So you started writing when you were a kid and you were living in New York at the time. What was the neighborhood like where you grew up and do you feel like there’s any of that neighborhood in your poetry?

I grew up in a neighborhood called Washington Heights/Inwood. I read a lot of New York poets in High School because they were assigned to us. I appreciate a lot more now the New York poetry scene that really had a big impact on me. And there were some great places that I was able to hear poetry at like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and it’s a really interesting place to live and grow up. One way that I see poetry, with hip hop music, and there is no poetry without hip hop and no hip hop without poetry. And I feel like one important part is for folks to read a lot of poetry, and I feel like I find a lot of poetry in music and a lot of the music speaks to different experiences coming out of New York. I think a lot of the language that I use comes out of New York. A lot of the flow comes out of New York. There’s the quickness of being in New York can also come out of me, too. When I write poetry it’s in short doses, and I feel like that’s because I would ride the train a lot when I was a kid. I was able to write in shot spurts whenever I could. I feel like it was writing on the train and having to go from one line to another, I could only write in short periods of time. Also with reading poetry—I loved reading poetry on the train and watching what other people would read. That’s what had an impact on me in New York.

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The Nuyorican Poets Café

I never thought about the trains and reading and writing short poems! Before you came to California you went to Palestine and you read poetry there. Why was that an important trip for you? What was it like?

It was part of a—not a student exchange program—but a people exchange program. I was working for the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and the director received a grant to bring people from Palestine to the U.S. and people from the U.S. to Palestine to discuss different things. Part of the focus was to provide feedback on American Studies programs set up in Palestine. It was a really interesting experience. I would have never thought of going to Palestine. Before going I went to different Palestinian solidarity events in New York City, so I knew a little bit, but also working for the Center for Arab American Studies taught me a lot about Palestine. But being in Palestine was an amazing experience, and I was fortunate to read a poem at an open mic and talk to other Palestinian poets. I would love to go again. It was interesting, but also very hard. Folks are fighting for their freedom which is a different experience than what I was experiencing in the U.S. There were check points and military all over the place. And thinking about Free Palestine and then being over there and talking to the folks to see what that would mean for the people that live in Palestine.

Writing in New York, travelling to Palestine, and then you end up in little small town Monterey Bay. You’ve been here for seven years and you’ve writing during that time. Do you feel like being here with a different way of life and landscape is starting to creep into your poetry at all? Or are you still a New York poet?

I’ve started to think about that these past few years. There’s a lot of nature here, right? So, am I going to start writing more about nature? And I’ve thought about that. Thought about taking photos during hikes and then writing about it. I feel like I write about experiences, so if I experience something here it’s because of the place but not because of place; it’s because what my life is. I can definitely see more of Monterey showing up in my poems, and this is a very nice place to write. There are painters and writers who come here either because it’s much more chill and a slower pace of life, or because it helps you to stop thinking about other things and focus on creativity. So I can definitely see some Monterey things coming up in my poems.

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Poetry and art on a wall in Palestine. Photo by Raya Tuffaha

So you’re working on this chapbook. What kind of poetry is going to be in here? Old poems? New poems? A mix?

It’s definitely going to be a mix of old and new poems. I debated whether or not to have two themes in the submission: all the old poems in one submission and all the new stuff in another. But I’m going to see what comes up with them together. It will be a lot of old stuff, with stuff I look back on. I was reading a poem right now and am making changes to it. So, I’m going back to older poems and revising them. The way that I write is a bit like a napkin poet. If something comes to my head I write it down on a napkin or a piece of paper. I’ve been finding those and typing them up and working on them. It’s starting to transition from that to going straight to a computer and typing them up. It depends on if I have the time to type poems up.

You’re thinking of a theme related to memory. So it’s perfect to go back to old poems and revise them.

Thinking about memory as something that’s also active. I’m also experiencing things now while reflecting on different memories, especially with family. I definitely have a poem about my grandfather who just passed away and learning more about his life. There were some open secrets, but there were other things that make more sense now about what his life was and who he was as a person. But bringing out those memories, I am a different person now than I was five, ten, twenty years ago. So, I’m also thinking about the “Letter to Langston” poem and I’m thinking about how I was a different person, thinking about different things, with different experiences. Life happens and works happens so I had a different mindset over ten years ago, but I still want to be able to share what I wrote back then and to continue to write about life.

Kenny Garcia was born and raised in New York City. Influenced by hip-hop music, slam poets, and Langston Hughes, Kenny has performed his poetry in New York, Michigan, California, and Palestine. He has workshopped his poetry at Voices of our Nation Arts (VONA) writing workshops. Kenny graduated from SUNY-Binghamton with a degree in History and English-Creative Writing. He currently works as a librarian at CSU-Monterey Bay, and lives in Marina, California with his partner, daughter, and pet fish.

Stephanie Spoto is a bookseller at Old Capitol Books and an editor with Boukra Press.