Interview

Rosa M. Rios on Voices of our Nations Art and her Puerto Rican Heritage

What is VONA?

VONA stands for Voices of our Nations Arts and is comprised of intensive writing workshops in different genres for one whole week with successful writers of color (WOC). The idea is to build a stable platform for WOC who are significantly underrepresented in writing programs across the country. It provides a safe space to express themselves through this craft and receive critical feedback from other WOC and instructors on their work. VONA also brings together WOC from all over the nation to meet and build community with one another for a week. As you will learn on their website, part of VONA’s values include a commitment to artistic excellence, social justice, and empowering the community of WOC.
Why did you decide to apply?

I had to seriously push myself to apply. It’s funny how I just wrote a blog post about how pushing myself has been so important in my life. I decided to apply because I believed that my writing was worthy of being critiqued so that I can continue growing in this craft. I accumulated so much material over the years that I felt it was worth pursuing. Besides, I had nothing to lose. No matter the outcome, I knew I was going to keep writing.
When did you know you wanted to be a poet and writer?

I knew that I wanted to write poetry when I realized the impact it had on others. This craft was not only for myself but the positive influence it was having on others to do the same. I love the way one can be so creative with words in poetry. I used to write poems in high school, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I took my poetry seriously. I began to write and read poetry at the Batey Urbano in Chicago, a youth space located in Humboldt Park Chicago that, at the time, provided inner city youth with an alternative to being on the streets. About the same time, several students and I had an event at University of Illinois-Chicago (my alma matter) known as Noche de Poetas, in which many of us participated. This was sometime in 2003 when I first watched the movie Piñero, the Hollywood story of a Nuyorican poet and playwright who founded the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which I fell in love with the spoken word. A few years ago in New York City, I was able to read one of my poems to the public at the Nuyorican Poets Café, a dream come true.

As far as writing, I have been an avid journal writer since I was a young teenager. Journal writing has been very therapeutic for me over time. It has saved me from many wrong turns. As an adult, writing continues to help me put my life into perspective. When I took Vanessa Martir’s inspiring Writing our Lives Workshops, I began to take my writing more seriously. That is where I found out about VONA and having been given the opportunity to attend VONA has validated me as a writer. I consider myself a writer in progress as I continue to make time for my craft and express myself through the sacred written words in my heart.

How much does your heritage inform or influence your work?

I believe my work is my heritage. My writing is the stuff that connects me to the past. Writing is how I can communicate with the voices before me that continue to speak to me. There are some poems I have written that I know have come to the page supernaturally because the emotions in them are deep and its a voice way beyond my own. It takes a lot of reflecting and meditating to listen to the voices of those who have transitioned. I always wondered why I felt so drawn to many things like the conga, the African drums, the spoken word and how words and beats fly and land onto the depths of our soul where we feel and remember things that are not our own. It comes from the past. I think about the joy of my spirit when I hear a live band or when I read a poem out loud. It’s a feeling we call hair raising, cuando se te paran los pelos. I also feel it when I am in worship to God, which is known as feeling the holy ghost or holy spirit near. I know that from both my maternal and paternal abuelitas I connect to the cultural, spiritual, and religious.

miabuelitacatalina

My maternal grandmother, Juanita Rivera Guzman, whom we called mama, was religious but also deeply cultural and protective of her patria. She inspired a poem I wrote “the things we carry” by waking me up at 3 am one day with the poem pouring out from within. My paternal grandmother, Catalina Lopez Collazo, used to be a doula in her community in Puerto Rico. She helped bring life into this world over and over again. She was a counselor, a mentor, a leader in her community. She was not only my grandmother, but she mothered and grand-mothered many. As an elder woman, she dedicated her life to worship God and the saints. Being in her presence felt holy. If we listen enough, we are guided by the spirits of our ancestors to honor their legacy and their hard work to allow us to be where we are today. I believe this all plays a huge influence in my work.
How can people apply for VONA?
A new VONA cycle begins every January 1st. People can go to the VONA website http://vonacommunity.org/community/index.php and read through the workshop descriptions that will be offered for that particular year. Some instructors return to teach, and some will be new. Some successful writers of color who continue to give workshops, for instance, are Junot Diaz in fiction, Ruth Forman and Willie Perdomo in poetry, and Elmaz Abinader in political content writing. On the website itself, you can begin your application to be considered for the program.
Who qualifies?

You do not have to be published to be eligible. However, you do have to submit work for the genre you wish to study. For example, for the genre of poetry, you must submit 5-10 original poems and so on.
Could you share some of your work with us?

Sure, I currently have a poetry blog that is still a work in progress. You can get to it here:

https://rosewillberose.wordpress.com/

I have also started a new blog for my prose and essay writing which I am still working on making public. One of the things I have been working on this year is to have more structure in my writing. It is a huge challenge, but the more I practice, the more structure I’ve been able to have. Also, putting my work out into the world is something I am still improving. As I said, I am a writer in progress. My goal is to finish a chapbook of poetry and prose dedicated to those who come before me and those who will come after. In the future, I would like to attempt to tackle fiction writing for the young adult audience.

Thank you Rosa! I can’t wait to get your chapbook in my hands. Thanks for being an amazing, kindhearted, creative, and hardworking Latina. 

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