“Institutional systems of power indoctrinate us”: An Interview with Victorio Reyes Asili

We had the privilege of publishing Victorio Reyes Asili’s poem, “Telegraphing.” Victorio is an activist and poet living in Albany, NY. He holds an M.F.A. degree from The Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches poetry classes at Siena College. His poems are forthcoming or have been published in the Acentos Review, Mobius, Word Riot, and the anthology It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip Hop. Reyes has also been the executive director of The Social Justice Center of Albany for the past 10 years.  We sent him some questions. Here are his answers.

If a ten-year-old kid came up to you and told you she wanted to be a writer, what would you say to her?

I would say “awesome.” There are many challenges in being a writer, none of which need to be explained to a ten year old. A ten year old has the freedom to write without worrying about future employment prospects, rejection from the literary world, or really any of the things us writers worry about. So I would say to her “Write!” And then I would say “Read.” Reading, at the end of the day, is the most important practice for a writer. Getting started early in that practice can only help. Finally I would say, “You’re way ahead of the game.” If you start writing seriously now, you will be in great shape when you’re 22, when we will then have to have the conversation about all of the challenges involved with choosing the writing life. 

When you write, do you consider your audience? If so, how?

Yes. Perhaps that’s not the thing a writer is supposed to say. But I do. I want to produce writing that is not sexist, racist, or homophobic, and to a certain degree I believe that actually takes effort. The reason I say this is because institutional systems of power indoctrinate us, those of us with privilege, with views that support that power structure. In my case, as an able-bodied, hetero male, I possess certain privileges that others don’t. Therefore I am likely to unconsciously ignore my privileges and write something offensive.  Since making such a mistake would go against my goal as a writer, to utilize the medium of writing to dismantle institutions of power, I make an effort to consider the way my audience might experience my words. If I write something that I think could be misunderstood, I revise, trying to preserve my original intent, while offering my words in a manner that is inclusive to people who may lack certain privileges that I possess. 

How does your poem, “Telegraphing,” represent the type of artist you are?

It doesn’t? No, I’m kidding. I mean, it doesn’t in the sense that it’s a poem about music, specifically seventies R & B, and I am no Patricia Smith, her “Motown Crown” being one of the best poem sequences I’ve ever read. I do write about music, but not often and when I do it’s usually about hip-hop. Interestingly, “Telegraphing” is not simply the title of one of my poems, but the title of a collection of poems. The reason being that “Telegraphing” represents a mode of communication but also a manner of revealing what you are talking about before you’re talking about it; in this regard, “Telegraphing” very much represents the type of artist I am, constantly striving for different modes of communication while not being afraid to say exactly what I’m trying to do. 

Who do you think we should be reading right now, and why?

Well, I mentioned Patricia Smith. You should also be reading Tara Betts, Jamaal May, Rigoberto GonzĂĄlez, Adrian Matejka, Aracelis Girmay and Barbara Smith. Tara, Jamaal, and Adrian because they are really skilled younger poets who are producing solid work, representative of the new generations of brown poets, raised in hip-hop and skilled at the literary arts, writing some kick-ass poems. Also Roger Reeves and Tracie Morris.

Rigoberto ’cause, duh, of course you should be reading Rigoberto. No seriously, he has been a writing mentor for me and he is not only an extremely skilled writer but also a really cool dude. Barbara Smith is an institution and she lives here in Albany. We are so fortunate to have such an important, historical figure in the writing world living in our midst; we’d be fools not to educate ourselves on her work. She’s also a really awesome person.

When I read “Teeth” by Aracelis Girmay I wanted to give up writing because I knew I could never write a poem like that. I decided to continue writing and then I read “Ode to the Little r” and I wanted to quit writing again. I haven’t quit yet, but the best work will make you want to quit writing, for a bit anyways. 

Tell us something about you we might be surprised to hear.

My favorite book of all time is Watership Down.

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