X is for Emanuel Xavier (1971- )

Emanuel Xavier is a spoken word poet of Puerto Rican heritage. He was born in 1971 in Brooklyn and grew up in New York. He came into literary voice in the context of the neo-Nuyorican spoken word poetry movement during the 1990s. He describes his experience of discovering literary community in the preface to the second edition of his volume Pier Queen (1997, 2012) where he writes:

“I remember the first time I stepped up to the mic at the Nuyorican Poets Café to slam with a poem…It was a Wednesday night and I was somehow unnerved by the fact that I never done this before. Credit to my fellow pier queens who had provided me with a thick skin and a loud mouth…I ended up winning my very first slam.” (2012, ii)

That first poem he performed, “Bushwick Bohemia,” opens the collection Pier Queen, his first and perhaps best-known collection of poems. Xavier would go on to publish four other books of poetry: If Jesus Were Gay & other poems, (2010), Americano-Growing Up Gay and Latino in the USA (2012), Nefarious (2013) and Radiance (2016). He also published Christ Like (2009), a semi-autobiographical novel that was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.

His first collection, Pier Queen, might be read as a long documentary poem. It chronicles the queer 1990s scene in New York City with its vibrant ballroom culture led and curated by queers of color, including Black, Latino American, and Caribbean diasporic queers. Its documentary style and strategies locate this work in conversation with fellow Puerto-Rican writer Piri Thomas’s classic confessional autobiography Down These Mean Streets (1967) published 30 years earlier. Xavier’s use of Langston Hughes’ poem “Water-Front Streets” as an epigraph for the work also consciously situates it in a literary tradition formed by queers of color.

Xavier’s work might be read in dialogue with a range of other popular culture texts across different genres and mediums (film, photography, music). The soul/funk/disco groove, “Love is the Message,” for example, lends its title to one of the poems. The cultural scene that the text narrates is also vividly recorded in Jennie Livingston’s much-celebrated film, Paris is Burning (1990). Xavier’s work demands that we revisit that film with an attention to the possibilities for and the dynamics of queer Caribbean diasporic life in that moment and in that space.

In his poem “Nueva York,” the island of New York is reimagined as a Caribbean island. He talks about: “the Nuyorican words/ that give the spice of life/ el ritmo y el sabor/to la isla del encanto/to la isla de Nueva York” (28). The cultural and historic moment and scene that he describes in his poetry has also been revisited in more recent work, for example, Trinidadian-American Gerard Gaskin’s documentary photography in Legendary (2013) and in Ryan Murphy’s hit television series Pose (2018).

While Xavier’s writing demonstrates a strong documentary impulse, there is also rich and meaningful attention to language, sound, and the possibilities for new formations and echoes. Pier Queen, much like Xavier’s other writings, moves easily between English and Spanish, inhabiting and exploring the sounds and rhythms of Puerto Rico and Brooklyn. He also utilizes the sounds (language, rhythm, music, pulse) of urban queer subcultures with skillful poetic effect. The form of several of his poems also draws on the call and response structure of the ballroom scene with its choreo-sonic possibilities.

The queer diasporic Caribbean comes into view in Xavier’s work not just as a theme but also through his networks of publication. His work is included in Ma-ka Diasporic Juks: Contemporary Writings by Queers of African Descent (1997), edited by Debbie Douglas, Courtnay McFarlane, Makeda Silvera and Douglas Stewart and published by Sister Vision Press in Toronto. He has also edited Bullets & Butterflies: queer spoken word poetry (2005), which includes the work of Staceyann Chin and Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, two voices who are notably absent from Thomas Glave’s seminal anthology, Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Writing from the Antilles (2008). These texts then might be seen as part of a literary map that points towards various anthologizings and gatherings of the queer Caribbean.

Ronald Cummings

More about the author

Xavier’s Wikipedia biography highlights his professional poetry career and his extensive activism.

Xavier reads “Bushwick Bohemia,” “an ode to the neighborhood where [he] grew up,” in this video.

Xavier’s own website shares personal reflections on his work and features numerous videos and other media.

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