Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

A Central American Poet Explores Identity, Race, and Rhythm… Via Zoom

Wingston Gonzalez presents his poetry on Zoom.

Guatemalan poet Wingston González was supposed to spend a week in New York City in mid-April, presenting his latest work at different venues. After the pandemic cancelled his trip, he started experimenting with something new: live poetry readings via Zoom.

Nor is he the only one. April is National Poetry Month, and many of the poets across the U.S. who would normally be reciting their verse at a cafe’s open mic night have moved their performances to online platforms. Bookstores and universities are hosting workshops and even running festivals through Facebook and Zoom. The Poetry Society of New York has added a feature that lets people book video calls with a poet.

González, however, was scheduled to come to New York for another reason. González is Garífuna, a minority group of about 600,000 individuals worldwide, who live mainly in Central America but have Afro-Caribbean origins. González had planned to read his poetry at a Garífuna festival in the Bronx. In a Zoom event hosted by King Juan Carlos Center at NYU, González talked about being raised speaking Garífuna with his mother and grandmother. He said that every morning, they would interpret their dreams from the night before. He writes in one of his poems:

“I dreamed that I had money/I dreamed of flowers/I dreamed of death/I dreamed that today we went/I dreamed of a Visa/I dreamed that today we went to the United States of Americaaaaaaa!”

His poetry is a natural for performance, whether live or on video. Sitting in his library at home, he read samples from his latest book, No Budu, Please, to an audience of about 40 people. His readings are dynamic and rhythmic; his translator, Urayoán Noel, compared the experience to a cross between a jam session and a mixtape. He draws out words, emphasizes certain syllables, raises or lowers the pitch of his voice based on who in the poem is speaking. Sometimes, he bursts into song.

Noel, a poet himself and a professor at NYU, said that they purposefully chose to read upbeat, high energy poems, partly as a way of cheering people up during the coronavirus, and partly because “if you read something that’s too subtle on Zoom, people are going to miss it,” said Noel. “They don’t have the kind of bodily cues, they don’t have the kind of immediacy of presence that you have in an in-person event. So you need to do stuff that’s, like, amped up a little more.”

Since González’s readings rely heavily on body language as well as spoken words, Zoom’s tiny squares of visibility present a challenge. However, González said in an interview that he also thinks that where Zoom limits his reach, it also expands it: the platform offers the chance to share his poetry with people on the other side of the world.

González said he started doing free-writing in notebooks when he was 15, to entertain friends at school. He described himself as a “failed rapper” or a “failed metalhead.” He infuses his poetry with elements from Garifuna music, Sci-Fi, anime, and Mayan mythology. He also incorporates the image of the “Kaiju,” a Japanese giant monster, and the spirit of those movies. The result, according to Noel, is both surreal and musical.

Noel said that one of González’s talents is his ability to take heavy topics like colonialism and turn them into pieces of art that are fun and engaging for the reader.

“It’s really difficult to do what he does,” said Noel, “to reflect those histories and those struggles, while also kind of re-mixing them in a way that’s totally fresh and totally his.”

While González’s poems are entertaining and filled with contemporary references, he doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of history. The Garífuna arrived in Central America after having been exiled by the British from the Island of St. Vincent in 1797, eventually forming communities in Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. González uses his poetry to introduce listeners to the history, language and worldview of the Garífuna, a people who have resisted against colonial powers for centuries, and for whom the effects of colonialism are still heavily felt today.

Because the works of Garífuna authors, poets and dramatists are little known in the U.S. González said he thinks a lot about how to transmit Garífuna culture to an outside audience. Noel said that he views González’s work as an “invitation to all of us” to “seek out” viewpoints of people whose art and culture are less likely to be translated, particularly that of indigenous groups.

González is currently working on putting together an anthology of his poems, while also taking time to do some writing. He says he’s focusing on what it means to be Garífuna today, especially in terms of the large diaspora that exists across Central America and in New York. The largest Garífuna population is thought to be in Honduras, which is home to anywhere between 98,000 and 250,000 Garífuna. Large Garífuna communities also exist in Guatemala, Belize and Nicaragua. Upward of 200,000 Garífuna live in New York City, mostly in the South Bronx.
González said he wants to make people aware of the place of Garífuna history within the greater history of the world. The quarantine, he said, is giving him plenty of time to think.

He believes that the arts can also help “shed light” on the way that the world is handling the coronavirus—perhaps not now, but for people in the future. “The arts are like a time capsule,” he said, adding that they “fix a marker” in a particular period of history.

He thinks the virus might even affect his own writing. “This is a moment sufficiently complicated,” he said, “to make oneself rethink everything he had been thinking he was going to write.”

 Emilia Otte is a NYU  graduate student in the Global Journalism program


Tags


Other Stories in Special Report: Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Life returns to the East Village

Quincy Walter May 5, 2021

Reopening for Ramadan

Hassan Abbas May 4, 2021

And the band played on

Xavier Bartaburu May 2, 2021

Queens residents mourn at Covid vigil

Annie Burky May 2, 2021

Floating for Free: COVID and the Staten Island Ferry

Trish Rooney May 2, 2021

COVID-19 has left many Black and Hispanic landlords in serious debt

Norah Hogan April 24, 2021

Village East movie theater reopens to the public

Inga Parkel April 13, 2021

Chinese adoptions halted by COVID

Inga Parkel March 24, 2021

Remote is the new workplace normal

Courtney Guarino March 24, 2021

One year of COVID-19 in New York City

Michelle Diaz March 16, 2021

COVID long haulers deal with lingering symptoms and doubt

Kaity Assaf March 5, 2021

Pandemic Weddings

Chuyan Jiang March 2, 2021

Pandemic fatigue 101

Chuyan Jiang February 28, 2021

Yankee Stadium becomes COVID-19 vaccine site for Bronx residents only

Michelle Diaz February 24, 2021

The queer community rallies behind their sacred spaces closed because of COVID-19

Inga Parkel February 23, 2021

Street vendors struggle as New Yorkers and tourists stay home

Norah Hogan February 13, 2021

Keeping the faith in COVID-19

Courtney Guarino February 3, 2021

Little Italy’s restaurants need indoor dining to survive pandemic

Michelle Diaz February 2, 2021

Stray pets find homes and love during pandemic

Inga Parkel February 1, 2021

No Actors, But the Show Goes On

James Pothen December 5, 2020

New York City, a place of refuge 

Edith Rousselot December 4, 2020

Commuting in a pandemic world

Michelle Diaz December 3, 2020

Battling food insecurities during a pandemic

Courtney Guarino December 3, 2020

Adaptation

Justin McGown December 3, 2020

Honk!: Cars earn a special spot in 2020

Luana Harumi December 3, 2020

Working out looks very different during a pandemic

Chuyan Jiang December 2, 2020

One kitchen’s transformation in the age of isolation

Isabel Beer December 2, 2020

Nursing homes are filled with sadness and loss during pandemic shut down

Inga Parkel December 1, 2020

The show goes on

Norah Hogan December 1, 2020

Loyal members help keep independent cinemas afloat

Courtney Guarino December 1, 2020

Musicians deal with the reality of no live shows as covid takes center stage

Paola Michelle Ortiz December 1, 2020

 Black Friday’s Aftermath

Sughnen Yongo-Okochi November 30, 2020

The Spirit of Little Haiti

Savannah Daniels October 14, 2020

Small business owners hope for future relief

Courtney Guarino October 2, 2020

Brooklyn Book Festival held virtually

Chuyan Jiang September 28, 2020

NYC Restaurant owners worry about maintaining business during winter 

Isabel Beer September 27, 2020

The pandemic is causing mental health struggles for many Latinos

Paola Michelle Ortiz September 24, 2020

Politically divided family can agree on one thing, rallies are bad during a pandemic

Michelle Diaz September 23, 2020

New Yorkers are vulnerable to mental issues due to pandemic

Sughnen Yongo-Okochi September 23, 2020

Healthcare professionals struggle with Trump’s decisions during pandemic

Tori Luecking September 23, 2020

Some Americans Say “Not So Fast” on Operation Warp Speed

James Pothen September 23, 2020

Trump voters unfazed by morality of Trump’s Covid response

Norah Hogan September 22, 2020

Trump rallies continue, despite the rising Covid-19 death toll

Isabel Beer September 22, 2020

Latinos weigh in on President Trump’s management of the pandemic

Paola Michelle Ortiz September 21, 2020

Fast track vaccine causes fear

Kaity Assaf September 21, 2020

It’s business as usual at McSorley’s Old Ale House

Tori Luecking September 20, 2020

Trump defiance to hold indoor rallies amidst COVID-19 sparks polarized responses 

Courtney Guarino September 20, 2020

NYC Cafes and restaurants try and survive the pandemic

Isabel Beer September 19, 2020

A typical afternoon at Shade Bar NYC

Kaity Assaf September 19, 2020

West Village staple, Caffe Reggio, remains open for outdoor dining in the wake of coronavirus restrictions 

Norah Hogan September 19, 2020