Voz Presents: Urayoán Noel
Un Cafecito con Urayoán
VOZ: Dominant aesthetics, which tend to value the normative and devalue liminal creations, have a steady opinion of work that includes visuals and graphics. Yet, memes very much have their own established rhetoric, and the marriage between the subject matter and the genre you’ve chosen (and I use the term “genre” loosely here) feels so natural. What was it about the meme genre that made you feel like it was the best channel for the message you’re trying to send? What strength do memes provide in this situation?
URAYOÁN: Internet memes are indeed highly regularized, especially inasmuch as we use the term to refer to one particular type of meme popularized by the Advice Dog (a line of text above, an image in the middle, and a line of text below that is often irreverent or somehow subverts expectations with a twist). I picked memes for three reasons. Firstly, because I was overwhelmed by the hyper-circulation of these images of the devastation of my island and felt that my own sanity required "remediating" these images (pun intended) in the context of a toxic (and always colonial) mass-media ecosystem. Secondly, because I wanted to tap into the violence of memes. Memes have always had an association with violence, from the early days of programmer bros trying to gross each other out to the explicitly racist and white-supremacist stuff on 4chan, now mainstreamed in the age of Trump. I wanted to channel that violence, that ugliness and nihilism of the moment we're living in, and redeploy it in the liberatory decolonial spirit of the Boricua artists and writers who inspired me. Lastly, I couldn't write anything else: I was too shocked and worried, as well as generally worn-down by the past year of personal and political pain. The best I could muster was a couple of lines, and so I thought of couplets, of their grace and powerful wit and resiliency from Chaucer to hip-hop to the refranero tradition my grandfather would hark back to without knowing when he would improvise funny and irreverent couplets. Couplet memes seemed to me an alternative way to tell the story, a counterpublic form that depends on the hegemonic circulation of mass public forms but that opens up a counter-space: a counterpunch of punchlines, perhaps, improvised to survive.
VOZ: As of this month, about 45% of the population of Puerto Rico still doesn’t have electricity, which also means water and food storage are affected. Some areas are even predicted to not have electricity summer, which is when hurricane season starts again. I feel like a large part of the goal of this work is to poke at the poor and complete lack of coverage on this very pertinent issue, even pulling on the fact that Puerto Rico is indeed a U.S. territory. Do you think creative writers, creative producers, are currently filling that void, taking on that social responsibility and trying to redraw attention to the people of Puerto Rico and the island?"
URAYOÁN: They've always filled that void, in Puerto Rico and its diaspora. Because we are a colony, a laboratory and playground for empires, one of those invisible small places described by Jamaica Kincaid, it is our creativity that keeps us afloat. Not just our poets and artists and writers, but our chefs and dancers and weavers, and of course our musicians, the drumbeats of our shores. Amid all the devastation, I was awed (though by no means surprised) to see my friends and family on the island reach in and reach out, against the toughest odds, in the spirit of creative survival that has defined us through generations of struggle. I don't think the issue is just lack of coverage or even the right coverage (as if the right coverage, the right information alone could suffice). I think now more than ever we must use our punchlines and our outrage to build bridges and alternative structures. The rest is la "meme" chose!
Urayoán is also currently working on a poetry vlog project titled WOKITOKITEKI. Check it out!
Editor's Note: I urge and highly encourage you to take a good look at the organizations Urayoán has mentioned here. Likewise, consider making a donation for the people of Puerto Rico. Follow in the footsteps of Urayoán's work and support fantastic people and their causes.
Urayoán Noel is the author of eight books, most recently the poetry collection Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico (Arizona, 2015) and the critical study In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam (Iowa, 2014), winner of the LASA Latino Studies Book Prize. Noel teaches at New York University and at the MFA of the Americas at Stetson University.