Like the Salons It’s Named For, “Tertulia” Is a Political Meeting Disguised as a Party
Vincent Toro's poems examine money, violence, colonialism, and the Puerto Rican diaspora
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I’ve been to many a tertulia in my life. In Costa Rica, these informal literary, artistic, or intellectual gatherings are as common and important as Sunday mass, and just as enlightening. Recently, thanks to Vincent Toro, I’ve experienced two types of tertulias I hadn’t thought possible—the first, his unforgettable new collection titled Tertulia, and the second, this unforgettable interview with him. But like all those intimate, late-night gatherings, I could convene with Vincent about his poetry, his inspirations, and the deeply personal and unapologetically political nature of his art. With his book like the background melody of a guitar played by a good friend, he and I sat across from each other digitally and invoked our own healing, illuminating tertulia.
John Manuel Arias: We who are Latin American know very well what it is—this incredible communing of friends, of minds, celebrating what is art and what is political and how they intersect. I’d love to know, what has your experience been with tertulias? Do they differ based on geography, on language?
Vincent Toro: I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of the tertulia—as word, event, and concept—until I was in my thirties. My grandmother frequently had gatherings in her house in Puerto Rico that were clearly tertulias, if no one was overtly calling them by that name.
Back in college I was also participating in what could also be categorized as tertulias. My schoolmates and I were bored and broke, and were itching to do something that wasn’t a school sponsored club event or fraternity party. I don’t know how it was initiated, but we found ourselves gathering on weekends in the dorm bathrooms to share poems and stories we wrote, hold musical jam sessions, perform improv, and play surrealist games. In many respects, my path as an artist was forged from what we did to occupy ourselves with those gatherings.
It wasn’t until later that I came to know of tertulias as a Spanish and Latin American tradition with a centuries-old history. In learning about them, I’ve come to understand that they do differ based on cultural and geographic circumstances. The Latin American tertulias seem to be rather more intentional in their outcome. The participants are well aware that they are building community and creating an experience from which one can develop. Back in college, we weren’t considering how our gatherings could be put to some larger use. As “Americanos,” our gatherings tend toward the brazen and the raucous. We weren’t being mindful of how these gatherings could be impactful. But the Latin American tertulias, though also committed to joy and play, have a decidedly political bent to them. The tertulias were acts of civil disobedience in places where fascist regimes were repressing people and prohibiting large groups from holding public meetings and events. So I think what is at stake is different, and as a result how the tertulias are enacted, what they represent, and what is spawned from them is quite a different thing.
JMA: I want to celebrate the musicality in the collection—one of my favorite parts of a tertulia is someone whipping out their guitar to accompany the voice of a drunken friend. There are many references to music throughout—discos, demo versions, club mixes—how does music inform the form and rhythm of your poetry?
VT: The music is everything. Poetry is, at its core, music. Sound is what draws me into a poem. There is music in other writing, but poetry centers music in a way that other writing genres do not (except for maybe theater, which is fundamentally poetry spoken in many voices).
I’ve often confessed that I am a poet because I was not able to become a musician. Music is an absolute obsession of mine. With poetry I can create a kind of music, though it never fully subdues that longing I have within me to have been a great singer or instrumentalist. The influence of the music I love is spilling out on every page of my books, to be honest. The records I was listening to when I was working on these collections impacted the formal structures of the poem, their syntax and rhythms, and their thematic elements. Tertulia is in many respects a dialogue with the music, films, and books I was digesting at the time I was crafting those poems.
And I should also say that this intimacy with music is essential to my revision process. I perform the poems out loud and listen to their music and melody to shape and polish the poems. As I tell my students, the poem on the page is sheet music, it is a map, a blueprint from which to draw out the performance of the poem.
JMA: This musicality shows up in two important families of poems—your “Cicastristes” series (which still haunt me; they’re beautiful), and your “Areyto” series. The latter has me especially fascinated. For those who don’t know, Areytos are essentially Taíno epics, sung to celebrate past heroes, danced to honor their deeds. I’d love to know why the precolonial areyto in these poems?
VT: I decided in the early stages of composing my first book that I would use the areyto as a conceptual engine for all my poetry. My aim is for all my books to have “areyto” poems included in them. I suppose I imagine all my poems as areytos. But I title certain poems with the word for a very specific reason rooted in my anti-colonial ideology. The areytos were powerful cultural agents for Taíno people. They were events that unified the tribes. They were celebratory and they were instructional. The areytos not only celebrated heroes, but also offered prophecy and, like all theater, provided the community with a lens through which to reflect upon itself. The areytos are actually a kind of precursor to the tertulia, one with entirely indigenous origins. During the colonization, the invaders acted to deliberately eliminate the areytos, because they knew that the areyto was a source of power for the Taínos, that erase them would be a way of erasing their history and thus dominating them. As an act of preservation of that history, I use “areyto” to title poems that I feel embody their elements and their design (at least as far as we know what they looked and sounded like from the salvaged history).
JMA: It’s impossible to be a Latinx person and not weave politics into your poetry. That is definitely true as a Boricua, as Puerto Rico is still a colony of the American empire, and especially after the tragedy of Hurricane María. “Puerto Rico Is Burning Its Dead” is particularly devastating, and becomes the most seething criticism of the empire’s neglect of the island, and your people. How do your own politics inform the way you write about Puerto Rico?
VT: I am first and foremost the offspring of the Nuyorican poets. Like them, I am a diasporic Boricua. My relationship to the island is one of a distant relative. With regard to the founding Nuyorican poets, their poems were charged with a longing to return to the island, to reclaim Puerto Rico as their home. Poets like Pedro Pietri, Sandra Maria Estevez, and Piri Thomas write Puerto Rico as the treasure that was taken from us. This idealization of the island was a necessary response for displaced people who have been stripped of homeland, history, and culture through forced occupation.
Much of my poetry unabashedly takes up this performance of Puerto Rico as idealized motherland, but I try to be cognizant of my position as a New York–born Puerto Rican. Puerto Rican writers born and raised on the island, and later generations of diasporic Puerto Ricans, they still exalt the island and its culture, but they bravely also engage with its complexities and its problems. I have tried to commit to that in my more recent writings. I still have a political and personal need to make music of the island as idealized homeland, but I am also trying to get “closer to it” by using my work to try to understand the reality of those who live on the island and therefore feel the impact of colonization in a much more direct fashion.
Even with “Puerto Rico is Burning Its Dead,” the impetus for writing that poem was born out of the anxiety I was feeling about our family here in the States losing communication with our family on the island after the hurricane. We did not know for several days if everyone was okay. This uncertainty was stressful, but I understood that my worry was nothing compared to what my family, and everyone on the island, was experiencing. There’s just no equating those two distinct circumstances. And yet there is a connection there, one that is truly and deeply felt.
JMA: I took special notice of your “Core Curriculum Standards” series, where the settings are often schools, and explore themes of masculinity, class difference, and even empire. I know you are an educator. How does observing what is happening in school systems now, as well as your own schoolyard experiences, play into these poems?
VT: A good number of the poems were composed in classrooms next to my students as they were writing. Their content came from our discussions and our project work. For the past 20 years I have served as a social justice arts educator. I teach art—creative writing and theater—through a process that balances the teaching of craft with how to use that craft for the aims of social change. Social justice pedagogy is equal parts artistic practice and civic practice. In this method, art is not a product, but a process to understand the world and create healthy paths to change.
We tackle some really difficult issues, and I have to say it is quite inspiring to watch, for example, a room full of fifth graders discuss sexism, or to listen to high school students share research for their poems on U.S. immigration policies. I have found the only way to conduct this kind of work successfully is to also “take the class” with my students. I do the work that I challenge them to, work that requires compassion and courage from all participants. A good number of the poems in the book were a result of my doing this work alongside my students.
If my poems are gritos, then these poems are gritos about the systemic violence I witness in the education system. This violence, to be clear, is not a violence that students commit on each other. This violence is a violence committed by powerful adults on children. We often hear rhetoric from adults in leadership positions about how children are precious, and yet their attacks on the safety and growth of young people through their policies reveals that they actually do not believe them to be precious at all. Especially if those children are black and brown.
But I want to be clear: the adults I am talking about are not the ones teaching in the classrooms. Teachers are doing the good work. They should be honored. I’m talking about the so-called “education reform” politicians, the corporate leaders and executive administrators who feel that an education should be provided only if they can profit from it.
JMA: One of the poems that stood out to me—that continues to wrack my brain and challenges me to do the work—is “On Money.” This year at AWP in San Antonio, I took a Lyft to the convention center, and the driver began telling me about himself—he was Cuban, he had been in the States for about 20 years, without his family. He also told me he had been a lawyer back in Cuba. And he was a Christian (that he made sure to repeat). He then began saying that he was writing a book about how Capitalism is the ultimate expression of Christianity—the subjugation of all the world and its species as was mandated by God in the Old Testament. I saw that striking resemblance in “On Money.”
VT: I have no answers about money, so I don’t know what the reader should extract from the poem. I guess I hope that the poem will do for the reader is to ignite an impulse within them to conduct their own inquiry about money, its value, its function, and its meaning.
There is, maybe, a parallel idea that I am attempting to confront in “On Money.” Money—as a thing, as an idea—has always troubled me. I recall being a child and trying to understand how money could prevent people from getting things that they should fundamentally have a right to, like food, shelter, medical care, and education. In my working-class family, money was a powerfully oppressive force that often tore at the connection we had to each other. This has motivated me to try to learn about how money actually operates and why humans created the machine of money to organize their world. Primarily, I wanted to comprehend how money gets its value. I read a number of texts on economics and money, and what I found was that even economists don’t seem to know what gives money its value. But one text I read, Money: A Biography by Felix Martin, was quite explicit in saying that money is not a thing, it is a representation, a symbol, and what gives it its value is human beings faith in its value. Or, at least, that is what I deduced from the book. I guess in that sense I understand your Lyft driver, for faith is considered a religious act and Christianity is a religion. Both money and religion depend on faith.
This led me to a great irony: in my work as a poet and literature teacher, so many people young and old have expressed that they don’t understand metaphor. Yet their entire life is organized around the belief in metaphor that is money. Money is a symbol of human need and desire, it is a metaphor bridging that need and desired with an object that one thinks might fulfill that need. It is a representation, a promise. But it is not the thing itself.