Enzo Silon Surin: Would have thought we were trained
for the shots we took—fists tossed
into the blind bend of neck-n-shoulder
where truth held more misses than hits—
most of which was more show than blow.
Sometimes, as if on cue: a spot broke open
in the crowd amidst drawl and grimace—
and the withdrawn drew their card into
the dark matter of an ever after—triumph
or defeat, no one ever cried, as if the body
only attended to the tear and break and not
to tears. Most of these bouts, staged in empty
school lots—fists flaring their stellar remnants—
begat not one bona fide winner—fight within
as bitter as any in the ring. And the one
thing that always survived were lies told
about whose fists were hindmost—not
how easily hearts, under guard, went into
flip mode over a fresh pair of white sneakers,
and how some were eager to pledge homage to
a posse—didn’t matter the cause or if one really
believed in the push of fists over bodies—one day
you’d be next. And some years from this moment,
the sound of something breaking; some poor boy’s
plea, will awaken lessons learned in science class,
about sound travel in space—myths of how
one can witness the destruction of the world
without a single sound—how one can wail, wail,
wail, and no one’d be able to hear it. But you
know this to be claptrap—in space or back lot,
you can always hear the blare of your own ruin.
Host: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University and you just heard a poem from today's guest Enzo Silon Surin. Enzo is a graduate of our MFA in creative writing program, author of multiple books of poetry and the founder of Central Square Press. Enzo is joined today by the head of our creative writing program Danielle Legros Georges. One quick note before we begin, when we originally recorded this interview, Danielle was a professor in our creative arts and learning program and also the Boston Poet Laureate. Since then, she's become the interim director of our MFA in creative writing program, and also finished a four-year term as Boston Poet Laureate. Without further explanation, here is the interview.
Danielle Legros Georges: I'm Danielle Legros Georges, a professor in the creative arts and learning division at Lesley University. Also, the Boston Poet Laureate, who has the pleasure of talking today to Enzo Silon Surin, a Haitian born poet, publisher, associate professor of English at Bunker Hill Community College, and an alum of Lesley University. I'm really looking forward to this conversation, and also to talking about your work and your ideas.
Enzo, I want to talk a little bit about your experience in the MFA program here. I find that some students attend MFA programs in order to locate their voices. When I met you, I felt myself in the presence of someone fully formed. I'm curious about the work you did as a student in the Lesley MFA program in creative writing, and why you chose Lesley, from among the different programs you could have attended.
Enzo: Okay. Well, thank you for categorizing me as fully formed when you met me. I think it was more of I had found something. I had found poetry, I had found a gift, and had really started to commit to it, but I didn't know what I had. It's one of those things that you found a treasure, but you don't really know what it is, and so what I was hoping to have happen in the program was to have some guidance, for someone to be able to say, "You see what you have here, this is what it is. This is what you could do with it."
I've read a lot and so prior to the MFA program, I do think a lot of the perception around being fully found is that I had a lot of mentors, and a lot of them were people I had never met. I was reading their books, reading the crap of poetry, and then what I call living the poet's life, which is basically not the glamorous part of poetry, which is basically spending a lot of time with inquisition and asking questions and talking and having conversations with people and also witnessing things and processing those.
I think I came to the MFA program at Lesley, especially with that in mind, and having tried the full residency program at the Art Institute of Chicago, the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago, it was hard to be a full-time student, and try to support myself as well, which was very difficult. Financially it was tough. I made the commitment after that to not quit my day job for a program and rather find a program that was already set up for those working full time.
Danielle: Yes, that's great to hear that the low-residency format really worked for you. I think it's something that's appealing to working adults.
Enzo: Now, and that was the beauty of it, and the funniest part about it is that it was right in my backyard. I mean, I had to go to Chicago, through Virginia, and back to Massachusetts to figure out that I needed to go to Lesley, which was not too far away. I spent a lot of time already in Cambridge, just at the coffee shops writing and there was Lesley right there.
Danielle: Yes. Was there a particular project you worked on in your time here?
Enzo: Yes, there was a-- The manuscript I worked on which is, When My Body Was A Clinched Fist. I really wanted to address the effects of social violence on individuals, especially growing up in the inner city. I hate to use the term inner city because it's not really inner city. Growing up in neighborhoods, inner city is really Queens, New York, but some areas were definitely a lot more difficult to navigate than others, and so we had-- I grew up in Queens when the drug epidemic was an all-time high, the crack epidemic until late 80s, early 90s. A lot of that really transformed who I was as an individual. In fact, that's how I discovered poetry as a means of not trying to escape, but try to make sense of the environment.
Sometimes it did provide some respite to not be able to think about these things, and later on, of course, it provided me as a means to get out of those situations as well, because words became one of those, one of the ways that I navigated the world. That collection was really something I wanted to address, but I didn't know how to structure it, because I had a lot to say.
When I came to the program, Cate Marvin was really my thesis advisor, and she really pushed me in ways that I'm still thankful to her for to this day, and every time we speak, I'm reminded of that, because, she really pushed me to write some of those challenging poems, the ones that I needed to write, but I was writing on the surface, because I was not really ready to deal with some of the content of the work. One particular set of poems which I really concentrated on in this collection had to do with losing a friend as a result of violence.
It was a friend who we were in high school together and he was stabbed to death. I never really processed any of that fully, and so, here now I would address it in my work, but I will really dive in. I remember one was very late. It was one in the morning and I was on the phone talking to Cate. She says, "There's a poem in there that you know you have to write." I knew because that night, right before she called, I said, "I know I have to write this poem," and was having that connection, having that type of support that she guided me. She didn't push me, but she guided me to put the necessary work on the page, because she sensed that I wanted to get something out that I was not really saying at that moment.
Danielle: Yes, the poem I think you're referring to is My Body as A Clinched Fist, right?
Danielle: It's a beautiful, moving, striking poem. You're right, there was no sign it ever took place referring to the loss of the friend. No dents in the universe, no visible wounds, and then further down into calm no witnesses, no one to talk to, no Leon back at school, no sign, the universe was ever disturbed, accepting he was gone, et cetera. Just imagine someone just falling from the earth, which calls to mind to me a poem by Alden which talks about Icarus. The figure in the myth falling out of the sky, while everybody was busy doing their own work. While on the one hand, it speaks to a very contemporary moment, it also has these wonderful echoes of other stories. Really, really liked that poem a lot.
Enzo: Thank you. That's a beautiful, I didn't realize about that poem. Now I'm going to definitely look it up. The inspiration for shaping this poem came out of my, I guess my love of the X-Men, and the idea that sometimes a mutation happens and the person has no idea until a moment, a situation pops up, and all of a sudden they realize there's something different about themselves. I think for me, it was my reaction to the violence experienced by others, and the feeling of anxiety, and the feeling of anger as well.
I would question why it would come out so suddenly so quickly, and then it would subside, and then I realized that I had all of this bottled up in me because of these past dramatic situations that I had tucked inside and the idea of the body being a clenched fist has to do with the notion that at some point, when we're trying to process trauma, the body protects itself, and it curls in like a fist would. A fist is used to fend off folks, but it's also used to protect something that you hold dear inside, and so I kind of feel like my body started to do that, as a way of making sure that I was protected in a way, and I think what it was protecting was this gift of words, this gift of poetry. I needed to survive those situations because there was something much bigger that I needed to do with all of that. I do believe that poetry for me is a gift, God-given and I know that my purpose on this earth has to do with poetry.
Speaker 2: Yes. Poetry is a gift. Poetry is a vehicle. Poetry is a way to make sense of the environment, the violence one encounters in the environment. These ways, it seems to me that writing poem's help you negotiate the world. One of the questions I had was, what does writing poems do for you? I think you've already answered that question. Here's another question then. What do you hope your poems do in the world?
Enzo: I don't think I've been asked that question. That's a tough one, too. I think partially it’s a two-part answer. The first one is-- The answer to that really is around whether that we control what our work actually does when it gets out into the world. With a four-year-old son, I'm learning that what you want him to do may not be exactly what he's going to do. I'm also realizing that it may not have to do with him personally, but who he is interacting with, and so how he interacts with the world really dictates whatever decision he makes.
I think poetry does the same thing, that when I release a poem out into the world I'm hoping that it connects with someone who's going through a similar experience, or they know somebody else who is going through something similar, that they're able to share in that work. That's not always-- I can't really control how it happens in that way. Whether that actually gets into people's hands to do that, but that is the hope because it freed me when I read these words, working in the library, I picked up a lot of books, and I was reading in the stacks. Having those words affect me in that way. I hope that my words do offer some comfort, some peace, and at the same time, maybe even some challenging moments, where folks are reading things about their own experiences that they hadn't really thought about before, and that is there.
Grappling with that they see words as a way of also dealing with that, and that they themselves would be moved to write. If it's not poetry, okay, but expression of words using words to express themselves, and I'm hoping that my work does that, even if it is for a brief moment that there is a little bit of respect, or the idea that somebody else out there is thinking about this too, and for that moment, however long it lasts for, I'm not alone in this world.
Danielle: Yes. In addition to writing poems that make their way into the world and touch people in the distribution of ideas through your press Central Square Press. I was wondering if you could talk about the inception of the press. Why you decided to start a press?
Enzo: Yes. The press really started out of relationships. I was having a lot of conversation with writers. Sometimes you work on a piece yourself as a poet, you saying, "Okay, this work is good." Then you read other people's work, you're like, "Man, that's really good." Then you're like, "Okay, where is your book?" Which is what people always ask, or where is it published, and sometimes you find that some folks have been working on their craft for a long period of time, but no publications because the publishing world is competitive. That's the word that is used. We talk about how competitive it is.
Gray Wolf on PBS had mentioned that they reject 99% of submissions, and that's not a knock on them, it's just that the competition is fierce out there. At the same time, there's the notion that without the competition, it doesn't mean that the word shouldn't get out there. I realized that certain poets who were spending a lot more time cultivating a life, not a poetry life. They're working, they're active in their communities. I think for me, it was more about spending as much time with those folks and realizing that, wait a minute, I'd like to see this out in the world, and so, being a publisher is really going back to being a fan of poetry, because sometimes we could be so critical of our own work, that it becomes work, and so this was a way to just go back and just having fun again, with poetry and celebrating poetry, and the fact that I was looking around to see how many black presses were still around. It was definitely a handful, not as many as they used to be.
I said, "Well, if I can take money out of my own pocket to start a press, and publish work that I would like to see out there, that I know other people would like to see out there, that it will be a worthwhile endeavor." For me, it wasn't about when I said that it wasn't about I'm just going to make this, as a great press and everything else. It was not simply, I wanted to publish other people's work, other people who I appreciate what they're putting into the world, both poetry wise and also movement wise in terms of the contributions, that community activists when they're busy making moves in many other ways. At the end of the day, was really about getting good poetry out there, and a lot of poetry that really interests, what I call the broken spaces, that target an audience that are struggling with so many things, that they can be freed by reading some of this work.
Danielle: Yes. I've seen the books that you've published, they're beautiful. I happen to have been published by you. I should be clear, to thank you Enzo for having published me, published my chapbook, Letters from Congo. I know that you're interested and have a commitment to issues of social justice, and you work that through in your press, and particularly as regards African American, Caribbean, and Caribbean American communities. Why this particular focus?
Enzo: That's a good question. When I first started out it was, I said, "Who do I want to publish?" I'm going to start with the Caribbean part because it also dealt with my struggle of submitting my work, and having to, at times, change what I send out, because when I came to the United States, I was at nine years old, and so I have Caribbean experiences, but I definitely have black American experiences as well, and I think somewhere along the way I felt I had to decide which one I wanted to address in my work, which experience and I thought it was simply because I was divided within myself, but it was also because of what I was seeing out there in terms of the black American side of me could submit to this journey. The Caribbean American side of me could submit to that journey.
At some point, the marriage of black American poetry and Caribbean poetry is there and has been there for a very long time, and so I said, "Why the divide? Why not try to bridge this divide?" I wanted to bring both groups together. Definitely wanted to bring the Caribbean American experience into the fold because I didn't see many of that, how much of that reflected. Sometimes I do think there's a process of trying to establish one's own identity versus that of a dominant society. When we talk about that, typically it's within the constructs of black and white. But even within the diaspora-- the African diaspora, you do have Caribbean writers-- Caribbean American writers writing about their home country, but they live in here. I think because the experiences overlap and the significance of what they're doing is tremendous. I wanted to highlight that as well. I wanted to celebrate that because we don't see much of that work being published in that way.
Danielle: Yes. I really love this projection of the binary, the limiting and you're exercising fluid identity and working out some intersectionality there. I think this is really a wonderful part of your work. I think-
Enzo: You make me sound like a genius.
Danielle: Well, you are. I think that, when you're-- you're reflecting-- your work reflects on community, race, family issues of identity here in the United States and in the country left behind, Haiti. While at the same time considering what it means to be unreservedly human in the world. Right.
Enzo: Yes. That's one of the beauties of your collection, by the way, if I can gloat about that, because what we talk about in terms of-- The collection deals with exile and it deals with the idea of leaving one's homeland and the idea of refuge as well. But what happens once you go to one place, then the next, then you go to the next place and you still have not found that refuge. It sort of really highlights the complicated history of America in general, but also other nations as well, that folks from the Caribbean have traveled and they've cross each other in some ways. The way we met, we did not meet in Haiti. We met here and the way we met was not necessarily through, Oh, we go into, a Haitian function. Right? Our family members know each other.
It was through the arts, through poetry and then we'll find out that we had this connection. But if we had seen each other outside of that context, we would assume that we're Haitian, maybe, maybe not getting that seen the work. There's the idea of what you said, that there's this binary thing that's happening, but at the same time, if we're looking at putting out collections that address many aspects of someone's life, I mean we evolved as people when we moved from one place to the next. I had to make sure that was represented. When your collection indeed we celebrate the idea that, that one can write about things that other people may not want to write about. At a time that it was not safe to write about.
It still needs to be out there, because when it comes to exile, we talk about the Haitian diaspora in general. There's still the effects. The residual effects of what happened in Haiti and the role that America also plays in it. In a way, I am both Americans still and Haitian still, celebrating that, I was really excited when your manuscript was available to be published, simply because it's a wonderful collection that I think highlights on what happens to an individual or to a family when those things started to happen.
Danielle: Yes. Art allowed us to get to know one another to become colleagues and friends. Why are the arts important? What is the value of the arts in your opinion?
Enzo: I think the arts is important because it's not simply about profession. Folks are not doing it simply because they want a career in it. There's the idea that the self wants to be expressed in some way.
Art in general goes down to the basic function of somebody wanting to express themselves and finding a means to do it. Whether it's somebody doing beat boxing on the steps in New York City, or wanting to just sing lyrics or write a song or just write a poem. It is about self-expression.
Danielle: Yes. The poet, Lorna Goodison talks about art as both a gift and something that you have to feed, right? You get the gift, but you have to feed it in order to have it continue to have it bloom. I really like that definition of what art does for a singular creature, for a person. It speaks to both inspiration and the practice, the work that has to go into the art form in order to really make it bloom and grow.
I also feel that the arts connect us across cultures, across time and space. They allow us to talk to people who are unlike us. They allow for empathy. They allow for connection, some of what you were talking about just now. I know why you're a poet. Maybe this is this question is similar to what I've posed before. Why are you an artist? What do artists do for culture? Why should we bother with artists?
Enzo: Because the artist is part of culture in a way that artists becomes an ambassador of that culture. Oftentimes I've had conversations that I would never have had with anyone simply because, there was no table set for that, there was no platform set for that. The way that I've been able to talk about many different things from either growing up in Haiti, growing up in New York or from being a parent. It does provide a platform. I do think some people are joined to an art center because they're trying to survive and it becomes a way to express themselves. For me, I don't put the responsibility on everyone as an artist to play a much bigger role in terms of art in the real world as they call it. There's room for both, there's space for both. But I do think for me personally as an artist, I was not given this gift simply for me to write poems for myself. I was giving this as an agent of change.
Danielle: Yes. You're carrying on the great tradition of work that is angaje, engaged work, that comes out of our Haitian roots.
Danielle: I want to switch things up a little bit.
Danielle: Who are your favorite poets? I'm not going to ask that question. I won't ask who are your favorite poets.
Enzo: Thank you.
Danielle: What are you reading now that's rocking your boat?
Enzo: A. Lemon's book. Ross Gay's book. I'm going back to some other books too, like Truth Thomas' book Speak Water, just came out a couple of years ago. I keep going back to Ana Suzan and Pablo Neruda as well. There's a slight political itch that I'm trying to scratch at this point. I think it's leading me in that direction as well. Some Kamau Brathwaite as well. Middle Passage. Those are the poets that I'm currently reading now, I go back and forth. One poet that surprised me was, Alice Oswald, I believe. She had a collection of poems titled Dart. When I looked into it and it was about a particular river, but she talked about-- she spent a lot of time with the people that live by this river and the idea of getting the history and getting the lives of the people chronicle within the stories of these poems. I started to think about writing more narrative poems as well to really put story back into the poetry.
Danielle: How do you negotiate that, that tension between wanting to write a story and the pros that sometimes gets associated with that idea of telling the story. The linearity, the lyric base and form too. This is some nerdy poetry stuff right now.
Enzo: Well, it is partially, right? You mentioned earlier that there is a lineage, right? There's a process that Haitian poets, singers, songwriters and storytellers work with. I go back to that and I realized that a really good story, especially the ones that I remember as a kid, that there was a cadence to them. The really good storytellers find ways to captivate you. They also allow the story to spreads across the page. As you're sitting there, you're listening and you're starting to drift off, it's like it's luring you into this dreamlike state so that you're processing the information that you are there. I think it's-- Actually, I used to have more fights with myself as a poet and saying, "No, I can't do this, I can't do that." Now, I think I'm finding that it's easier for me to be able to say what gets the story on the page. I'm not married anymore to the form.
Enzo: Yes. Very much so.
Danielle: Okay. Enzo, where do you see poetry in the next 20 or 30 years?
Enzo: I see poetry being a part of everyday life in the next 20 or 30 years. What I mean by that is, it's going through some growing pains now in some ways. But I think people are going to want to have poetry do what it once did, which is to really represent the times, to be the sign of the times, and to also comment what is happening now, to give people a different set of perspectives and understanding.
The reason why I'm saying that is because poetry becomes now news. It's sort of playing that the idea of creative journalism, not hard-core journalism because right now with the invention of social media and internet news, and other types of news- it is very difficult for folks to get a moment to think and to reflect.
I think poetry does provide those opportunities. The more that work that gets published, the more folks who start to realize that maybe there is more truth to what the poet is saying than there is in what everybody else is saying about what's going on in the world.
Danielle: Right. Even though poems are constructions or works of art, they give us the truth. They are a way to the truth, particularly in this context of fake news. I think you're also speaking to some trends in the poetry world, like Docupoetics, which has been around for a bit now. Where is Enzo's work going to be in the next few years? I know you're shopping your manuscript. Could you talk a little bit about the news of Enzo?
Enzo: Sure. I have been looking at two different manuscripts that I have, one dealing with the effects of social and political violence as a result of my experience in Haiti. I'm also dealing with another group of poems, another manuscript that's also dealing with the topic of erasure. What happens to identity when, not just history, tries to erase you? People that you know, actively trying to erase who you are as an individual and the idea of why we need more literature to document this before the erasure happens.
I'm dealing with a lot of identity in the work. The part I'm excited about, believe it or not is the work that Central Square Press is going to be doing in the next couple of years. We're looking at a number of authors bringing forward but also a number of anthologies as well. That way we get a lot more push out there and try to get the attention on some very necessary things.
One of them is, I can leak it, an anthology on mood disorders. There's been a few out there but we're doing something a little bit different here with this particular one, as a result of a number of of lives that have been lost especially within the poetry community as a result of mood disorders. It is a way to pay homage to those lost lives.
Danielle: I've got two more questions for you. The first, I know you have two young children. How do you get your literary work done between parenting and working full time as a professor of English?
Enzo: It used to be a lot simpler to answer that question after Nicholas had turned four. But with the addition of his baby brother who's three months, Michael, now I'm back to the lack of sleep and lack of clear thought type of thing. I also found myself, while holding him the other day, writing a poem. I had my notebook with me, and my pen with me and other times I had my phone with me. I think it's one of those things that I trained myself to do is that the poetry is necessary. Even if it means I may skip a meal while doing these other things, that the work is going to get done when it gets done. At the same time, I'm all about being present as well.
I'm not writing unless the poem is really pushing me to do so in that moment. Mostly, I am paying attention as much as I can to being a father to these boys and to being a spouse. I think it's really-- When you become a parent and you are responsible on these levels, every single thing you do, the child is paying attention to. Because of that, I'm able to take some time out to do some work and I'd say to Nicholas, "Okay, daddy is going to have to write now," and he starts to say, "I want to write some poetry too."
He's developed this love for poetry and that's something because I was always locked away writing poetry, but because when I was not writing in my office, I was talking to him about poetry. Every time a book comes out, for Central Square Press, when I get my copy in, he's one of the first people I give it to. I say, "Look. Daddy's got a new book out," and he looks at it and he feels like he's part of that process.
For me, it's about making sure that poetry is not something that I do, but he knows that I'm a poet. When poetry is part of my everyday life, I'm able to sneak it in different places. I'm able to do some juggling here and there, but I'm not very good at multi-tasking. For that reason, I do try to set time aside.
Danielle: I love that idea. Poetry as part of everyday life. Because it is out there. What we find poetic is part of the everyday life so you're making it work. My follow-up question to you has to do with the connection between poetry, art-making, and teaching. I wonder if you could speak to that.
Enzo: I've been fortunate enough to teach an introduction to poetry class. Unlike teaching composition, I am a 100%-- I'm walking into the room as a poet and I'm leaving the room as a poet as well. I think when it comes to teaching writing, you have to talk about process. I realize that poetry allows me to do that even in my composition classes as well. The idea of structure. The idea of wanting to express yourself in certain ways but also the idea of expectations. How do you balance that?
How do you write something that you love? How do you write something that you love but you don't want to be published? How do you write something that you know would be published but you don't necessarily love? That whole thing of going back and forth, and really having the conversation with students about being comfortable for whatever it is that you produce.
If you don't want it to be out in the world, that's fine too. Be 100% comfortable with that. But if you are ready to get it out into the world, then know that sometimes it's not-- like anything else, not everybody is going to like it. There's not going to be a home for it.
At the same time, if something means something enough to you, then go on and get it out to the world because it's relevant. Find a way to do it. There's plenty of ways to do it. When I talk about writing with poets, I talk about the importance of research, not just crafting a poem but researching, making sure that you have the necessary information. Also the importance of revision, and then publishing as well. Whether it's self-publishing or publishing through traditional means. Find a way to do it.
And last, the importance of community. You're not doing this by yourself. Don't try to do it by yourself. Find other people that you like spending time with, not necessarily writing poetry with, but just worth being a good human being. The work will follow.
One of the biggest fears that I had was being a great poet but a terrible human being. I never wanted that to happen. Some folks have had some difficulties in their life, where you can tell that they struggle within their own skin, within their own selves. I've always put that first. Being a good spouse. Being a good parent, and then the poetry would come.
From time to time, I do take these breaks because I need to be home, because I'm teaching and I'm exhausted and my time has been spent doing a lot of different things, so I really try to put the priority on taking care of me, my family, and so forth and then the work will come. A healthy me will result in healthy poems. I have to make sure that I'm in the right space as well to be able to write well.
Danielle: I think kindness is underrated. Humanity is so important and I think you're addressing that connection as well. If you'll allow me, I'll share what I think your work does. You can let me know what you think. I think you're exploring the important and complicated topics of violence afflicted upon within black communities, cities as a sight of commonplace cruelties, the adjustments one has to make especially once children, black boys, and young men have to make in response, the accompanying reconfiguration of the self. I think your work is daring, thoughtful, political, it's deep with poetic cosmopolitan, transnational, vulnerable and down. What do you think?
Enzo: Wow, can you be my agent?
Enzo: Thank you for those words. It means a lot coming from you because you spend a lot of time with poetry, and you are also a person who looks deeper within the context of what's been published out there. You see things that somebody else may not see. Thank you for those words.
Host: Thank you for listening to Why We Write. This podcast is just a sampling of the many amazing people who are a part of our writing community. Head on over to Lesley.edu/podcast to learn more about Danielle Legros Georges, Enzo Silon Surin, our creative writing program and more. If you've enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review us on the podcast of your choice. Next week we have a special episode from the book reviewers behind the popular blog, The Classroom Bookshelf. Here is a sneak peek into that conversation.
Mary Ann Cappiello: This is the book he gets to read. One of the implications where we know the author has been accused of sexual abuse and exploitation by others over a persisted period of time, and what is our obligation in that, and the art versus the artist. I don't know what to do about that book.