Stereo. Island. Mosaic.
The 2015 Sawtooth Poetry Prize winner, selected by Ed Roberson.
Winner of the 2017 Norma Farber Book Award from the Poetry Society of America.
No simple tourist trip, no three-hour tour, Vincent Toro’s carefully-structured Stereo.Island.Mosaic. draws the reader into lived experience of culture. Confronted with Puerto Rico, other Americans—Leonard Bernstein in West Side Story—often declare the island “exotic.” Certainly such signifiers abound on this version of the island: mangos to eat, men wearing the Guayabera, tropical flora spilling everywhere. But our dive here is deeper: into the mind of an elderly man losing language, into the ocean in one century to wash up on the mainland in another time that compels the island native to assimilate. To become a “Sorta Rican,” in Toro’s book, is to become what the epigraph calls a “hybridized subject.” Even the already-syncretized religion, Santería, finds its “Orishas . . . hostage” to disability and alcoholism, like its believers, like their descendants and neighbors. These scattered migrants, shown in fragmented images, live in a New York as crowded and bright as a Romare Bearden collage. The voice of the island itself plays in stereo through the broken language of the book, now jazz and now hip-hop, coming from everywhere and nowhere. What we are given in Stereo.Island.Mosaic. is not a comfortable beauty; we feel the “torn . . . tendons” of the worker who comes to the mainland to earn money for home. The pattern that emerges is necessary, packed with living history of the island people like the “epic memory” of the Taino Indians’ ritual theater.
“Stereo. Island. Mosaic. is a work that moves forwards and backwards through itself, and collides in bursts of poetic beauty everywhere. The seven sections move A-B-C-D-C-B-A, with the title of each section countering itself, ‘Mosaic: Zemis,’ (the art of the broken: a sacred object the physical representation of the spirit); ‘Island: Palenques,’ (Puerto Rico: the Mayan city of temples). The section ‘Stereo: Areyto’ counters a stereo in Washington Heights with a ceremonial dance to the ancestors. The epicenter of this sequence of poems rejoices in how all these contrasts resolve in a rich yet sometimes confusing and difficult culture. ‘A Threnody for Freddie Prinze Sr’ asks, ‘A flaky Boricua is playing a Mexican! Tell me why the networks can’t tell the difference?’ It asks if Prinze really knew himself, and bids of the reader a better understanding of the hybridity of this country.” —Ed Roberson, judge of the 2015 Sawtooth Poetry Prize
FIBONACCI EKPHRASTIC FOR “THE BIRTH OF A CITY” BY ANGEL RODRIGUEZ-DIAZ
of burnt leaves
and woodpecker wings.
Decades levitate the counters
you scrubbed. Echinacea engraved across your breast grows
without roots to bind them. You breathe unwashed linens, never ask for keys to the convent.
down to match
Expelled from the geometry
of myth, rumor becomes crown and mask. You beautify
chicken wire and cracked drywall with heirlooms from Aztlan. What you possess you have reared.
home, dried apricots,
dented pickups, and tired men
who work too long and drink too hard. Cedar ash congests
the lungs you use to blow out virgin candles bought at the neighborhood botanica.
that become a sieve
of history, straining the wild
from the willing. Missions and malls encroach your sun swathed
villitas where flowers battle and murals proliferate like thirsty brushfires.
Copyright © 2016 by Vincent Toro
Interview with Vincent Toro by Derek Beres
Sugar-slicked, tightly controlled lyric shifts and clever formal constraints allow Toro to confront the difficulty of truth-telling without self-exoticization. Yet he remains able to find those truths: erasures of his own poems become fragmented stutters, then silence. These tonally dense, structurally varied poems often adapt Puerto Rican lyric and musical forms; this nuanced engagement with generational distortions of Taino heritage is also evoked in the blending of mythology with experience, as in "Recast/ Agueynaba/ as South Bronx/ social worker" and "Grand Concourse is merely a doppelgänger// of the Middle Passage." Toro's evocative portrayal of intergenerational migrant realities reveals what it's like to be "neither boundary/ nor center/ neither master nor serf." — from the review at Publishers Weekly
The seven sections progress and reflect one another around the central tour de force, “Epicenter: Caribbean Sea Crab Canon,” mimicking the shape of one of the book’s prevalent images, the hurricane, often connecting the violence of hurricanes and the violence that occurs at the intersections of cultures. Toro’s poetry seeks to explore and embody the realities of hybrid identities resulting from these intersections. In “Ricanstruction: Xenochrony,” Toro grapples with his subjectivity as an American with Puerto Rican heritage: “And my student said to me / I know you ain’t Boriqua ‘cause you speak good… My wife’s / professor called us immigrants.” Stuck in a limbo between cultures, Toro pulls from both to create his own; Spanish and English brush against one another with no final assimilation. —from the review at Scout Poetry
I hold a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Poetry and a B.A. in English and Theater from Rutgers University, and am a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, a finalist for the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize, The Alice James Book Award, and the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize. In 2014 I was named a Poet’s House Emerging Poets Fellow and awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.
As a Puerto Rican poet, playwright, director, and educator, I have spent the last 16 years of my life teaching in communities of color and writing about the conflicts, issues, and themes that directly engage those communities.
Prior to my participation in the Rutgers Master of Fine Arts program, I served for five years as Theater Director and Literary Arts Coordinator at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas. My current work as an arts educator for The Dreamyard Project and The Dodge Poetry Foundation, and as English Lecturer at Bronx Community College, has had an enormous impact on both the aesthetics and the content of my work.
I was an associate artist resident at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida, am a member of The Macondo Writer’s Foundation, and serve as a board member for GlobalWrites, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting literacy through the integration of technology and the performing arts in schools throughout the U.S. I have performed and taught poetry and theater in the U.S. and abroad, and have collaborated on literary and community arts projects with local, national, and international artists across disciplines.
I am also a theater director and playwright. My plays have been produced Off-Broadway at INTAR, Teatro La Tea, The San Pedro Playhouse in San Antonio, The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Raices Theater in Buffalo, and The Spanish Repertory Theater, where my play “21” was awarded the Nuestras Voces Playwriting Prize. In 2009 I received The Alamo Theater Arts Council Golden Globe Award for Best Direction of a Drama for my staging of Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” at the San Pedro Playhouse in San Antonio, Texas. My work in theater has not merely “influenced” my poetry; the two disciplines are fully integrated into my creative process. That is, my poetry is fully present in my theater work, and my theater training is an integral part of my process as a poet.
Since first being given a copy of Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary” when I was 15 years old, I have been enamored with contemporary Latino and Caribbean literature. My twenty-five year exploration of Latino and Caribbean literature led me on a path from the political poetry of Julia De Burgos and Ernesto Cardenal to the work of conceptual and experimental poets such as Kamau Brathwaite, Vicente Huidobro, and Myriam Moscona: just a few of the authors who were “sitting next to me” as I constructed Stereo.Island.Mosaic. Moreover, the work of artists from other disciplines, such as(creator of the Theater of The Oppressed) Augusto Boal, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Diego Rivera, Meshell Ndegeocello, Sun Ra, and Public Enemy were also instrumental in composing Stereo.Island.Mosaic. That is, they served as musical instruments in the orchestral section of “the band” that is this book, adding the timbre, tempo, and pitch to the larger arrangement. Playing in harmony with them were myriad other contemporary world writers, artists, and scholars. Their colors were codified and conducted by my work as a social justice arts educator, which has informed my ideological stance that art must engage courageously and directly with the larger world to examine the human condition, resolve and heal social ills, and provoke change on a global, as well as personal, scale, while still calling into the world a bit of fun and some beauty.
Stereo.Island.Mosaic. is both a reconstruction of personal history and an examination of Caribbean identity through the postmodern lens of a mosaic woven from Latin American mythology and history, themes of urban migration, Caribbean literature scholar Antonio Benitez-Rojo’s theory of The Repeating Island, and Aime Cesaire’s application of Négritude in his work “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land." Beyond the theoretical engine of the book, the poems are aesthetically inspired by Latin@ and Latin American music and visual art, from which I adopted their techniques and structures, transposing them into the medium of poetry. The poems are intended to act upon the reader’s senses the way that a music recording or an oil painting on the wall in an art gallery might. They are also a return to the Taino tradition of the Areyto, a ceremony that functioned as a single unified body for art, without the industrialized world’s imposed separation of artistic “disciplines” into literature, visual art, music, and theater. The fragmented narratives and juxtaposed images presented are “mixed and mastered” as a stereophonic experience, such as the one illustrated by poet and scholar Sandy Florian in her essay, “The Hybrid”: “The stereophonic player, on the other hand, employs two channels and disperses the sound so that it reaches the listener seemingly from everywhere and nowhere. The voice emerging from the stereo, like the voice emerging from the hybridized subject, becomes an uncertain presence by having no singular point of reference.”