Danny Diaz-Villafane is a senior at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, enrolled in the Creative Writing/Media Arts department. He was selected as one of the winners of the Fresh Voices competition of the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, has won the Wallace Stevens Poetry Scholarship two years in a row, and has already been published in two literary magazines. Diaz-Villafane plans to attend the University of Hartford and to major in creative writing with a minor in agriculture. He hopes to become a teacher like Martin Espada, whose poetry and political commitment have inspired him.
Even at this young age, Diaz-Villafane has already mapped out what he wants to do in the future: Study for a teaching degree and own his own ranch, where he can host neighborhood writing classes to help kids from lower-income backgrounds. He credits his teachers at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Performing Arts for their mentoring and support. He feels that through his poetry, he can connect with a wide variety of people and make space for life’s messiness in his writing because he thinks that “You don’t have to come from my neighborhood to understand my experiences because chaos is universal.”
When you read the answers to my questions, you will find a very mature and caring young man, proud of his heritage; aware of life’s inequalities because of racism, and his skillful use of language to illustrate his world and share it with us.
Dominican poet: Elizabeth Acevedo will be the featured poet at The Fresh Voices reading also featuring the six winners of the competition.
It takes place on August 11, at 6:00 the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, Hill Stead Museum, 35 Mountain Rd in Farmington, CT. Admission is $20 per person; discounts for seniors and students. For more information visit www.hillstead.org/sunken-garden-poetry-festival/2019-poetry-festival/ or call 860.677.4787 ext 140.
Remember to bring a blanket, folding chairs and food.
In Conversation With Poet Danny Diaz-Villafane
“If I would’ve known that small writing class would have this big of an impact on my life, I would’ve told myself to start a lot sooner.”Danny Diaz-Villafane
BR: Where are your parents from? Did they speak Spanish at home?
DDV: Well, my father was born in a hospital in Caguas but his side of the family was born in Cidra. So depending on who you ask you’d get one of those answers. My mother was born in Hartford like me but my grandmother, who helped raise me, was born in Caguas and lived there for the majority of her life. My family spoke Spanish a lot more than English in my house, usually transitioning mid-sentence, which lead me to have a couple of speech impediments growing up. I was actually in speech therapy up until 5th grade.
BR: Where did you grow up? what did you like to do as a kid?
DDV: I was born in Hartford and grew up in a packed house. My grandmother, parents, and uncle all stuffed together from house to house. We moved around a lot. It was nice to grow up in a house like that because my family was always together and it gave me a sense of reassurance that they would always be there. My uncle was only a couple years older than me so it was like having an older brother in the house. I spent most of my time attached to my parents’ hip. I would go outside from time to time to play basketball in the back with my older cousins Joshua and Angel, but mostly I stayed inside watching cartoons.
BR: When did you become interested in Poetry and Writing?
DDV: Most of my life I planned on being an artist. My uncle Jay was a tattoo artist so watching him draw and work on my dad always interested me. I wanted to have a longing impact on someone’s life and for a while I thought tattooing was the way. Then I went to school and realized that even though I may have a talent for drawing it didn’t have the impression I wanted. When CMTs were popular, I fell in love with the writing prompts but never had the drive to pursue it outside of school until 6th grade. I transferred to the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and started taking a plethora of different art classes. I dabbled in music, painting, acting, but nothing connected with me as much as my first journaling class. I was usually very talkative, but when given the time to just write and let whatever that was on my mind out, I would go dead silent and just spew everything into the small composition notebook our teacher had given us. If I would’ve known that small writing class would have this big of an impact on my life, I would’ve told myself to start a lot sooner.
BR: Do you have a Favorite poet? Books you like to read?
DDV: I spend a lot of my time reading anything from novels to poetry, anything that captures my attention. I like collecting poetry books from various writers. However, no one has had the biggest impact on my writing more than Martin Espada. My teacher Lynn Hoffman introduced me to his work my freshman year when she gave me a copy of Alabanza. It was a collection of his work from 1982-2002. I read a lot of poetry during the intensive writing classes at school and was able to craft my own voice that spoke to myself and others the way Mr. Espada’s work spoke to me. The day I graduated, a teacher told me that Martin Espada was the Latino poet of his time and that I should be labeled the Latino poet of mine. I have and will always keep that statement close to my heart, but he has left some pretty big shoes to fill and I am in no way saying that those shoes were meant for me. I like to think they were though, and that helps me to move forward in my writing.
BR: do you consider yourself a slam poet or are you more traditional?
DDV: While some of my work does contain some slam poetry aspects, I do not consider myself a slam poet. But I also neglect a lot of rules like the rhyme scheme and letter format that is present in traditional poetry. I’d say I’m more of a traditional poet mostly working in free verse. I’m not a slam poet because slam poetry is written with the intention of being performed, whereas my work is written to be read on the page for the most part even though I can and sometimes do perform it.
BR: Do you have a poetry mentor or someone who encouraged you to write?
DDV: As for my mentors I have the pleasure to say I have multiple. Thanks to my old school, I had the opportunity to work with professional writers who have a ton of experience in the field, each mentoring me and helping me craft different aspects of my work. For example, Megan Collins and Meghan Evans helped me to craft my poetry. We spent hours on Google Docs just picking the right word for a single line. Lynn Hoffman and Maureen O’Brien helped me to have a voice. I suffered from extreme social anxiety growing up, and the two of them helped me to break from the shell I created and to be able to perform my work. Eventually, I had enough courage to become the class speaker for my arts graduation. Lastly, Rafael Oses helped me realize what potential I had, not putting up with me and my antics freshman year helped a lot. I would sometimes just walk into his office and talk about my dad and life at home. He became a good support person for me, they all did, eventually becoming my family.
BR: What inspires you to write?
DDV: Marvel!. I know it sounds weird since Marvel and comic books have nothing to do with poetry, or what I write but hear me out. I fell in love with the craft of the story since I was a kid, the never-ending story from book to book or movie to movie made it seem like everything was brand new. I could be sitting in the same chair in my grandmother’s sala for days at a time and everything would feel fresh as long as a superhero movie was on. I liked to tell myself stories throughout the day because of it, just storyboarding entire movie plots and superhero origins in my head. I would act them out whenever I was alone, choreographing fight scenes in the shower and working on facial expressions in the mirror. But when it came to writing those stories, I always got lost and kept stumbling over my words, but poetry’s shortness gave my words the impact I wanted from them.
BR: I read you want to work with kids in lower-income neighborhoods. What inspired you to want to do that?
DDV: I grew up in lower-income neighborhoods myself, so I know how it feels to be left behind. People just look at you differently when you say “Hartford,” the coldness in a person’s eyes when they’re scared of your neighborhood makes it feel like they are scared of you. That fear turns you into the problem and when you’re the problem you jump straight to target, number one in the eyes of cops. We’ve lost so many good young people to the streets and misjudgment to offers, my friends included, and anything I can do to stop that will happen. I saw cops harass and target my uncle, my father denied jobs he’s more than qualified to have just for things he had to do to make sure I ate. When color and place is stamped next to your name, your chances of survival are cut in half and the only way to live is to fall into stereotypes. I met some amazing people throughout my time in high school, especially my girlfriend Emma who showed me what true potential was. She looked passed my skin and saw straight into my soul. She came to my neighborhood with open arms and fell in love with my family and friends. She showed me that self-choice and understanding others are a must to have in this world, or else you’ll go crazy bending to fit a mold not meant for you. I want the kids of the future to know that the path others made for you isn’t the only path you have. You can become a doctor, lawyer, artist, dancer, or in my case a writer. Nothing is impossible even a career in art as long as you surround yourself with people who want to see you do good.
BR: Which poems did you recite for the Fresh Voices competition? Could we publish them?
DDV: I read Mother’s Day, Prehistoric Artifacts, and Promised Land. I would love to have them published.
BR: You won the Wallace Stevens competition twice, what is different for you this time?
DDV: When I found out I won the Wallace Stevens Competition for the first time, I was ecstatic. I was at a low point in my early writing career and had no faith in the work I produced. I swore I won on pure luck, maybe a lot of people didn’t submit or maybe the entire lot including my own wasn’t that good. But when I heard I won a second time in a row, becoming the first person in the history of the competition to do so, it sent the feeling of purpose through me. I began pushing myself even harder, slamming through work and dropping home run after home run in my poetry classes. I also had a few strikeouts, but a little editing helped with those.
BR: What do you want to accomplish as a writer?
DDV: As of right now, I’m working on my memoir I hope to get published sometime in November if everything goes right. I want to continue my growth in poetry and start getting more of my work out into the world so others can hear my story and know they are not the ones going through it right now, it gets better. I want to follow the steps of Mr. Martin Espada and becoming a professor of English later in my life.
BR: Any advice for young people like you who want to be poets?
DDV: No matter what’s happening at home or at school find something you love and push. Even if you don’t have a competitive mindset remember the world does, so strive to be the best at what you do and never let it become a job. The two killers of creativity is society and the expectations society sets for employment.
BR: Wishing you the best and looking forward to reading your work and your poetry books.
Poems By Daniel Diaz-Villafane
With a first line borrowed from “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway
Yes, isn’t it pretty to think
when you walk home
purses will remain unclutched,
the burning sensation
in a cop’s trigger finger
will go unsatisfied.
Isn’t it pretty to think
hate will evaporate
like puddles after a rainstorm,
and names like spic and wetback
will be nothing
but words in a history book.
Pretty to think one day
white, black, and brown
fingertips will come together
like the teeth of a zipper
and protect us from segregating eyes.
To think the words of Martin Espada
will travel from Massachusetts
to curbside memorials
and unnamed graves.
To think they’ll welcome the ones
taken by street violence,
This is your land too.
A small bird
with the wingspan
of a pterodactyl
soars above me.
the way it flies,
it is so unlike
the prehistoric creature
but the heart
is the same.
615 times per minute
before it’s silenced
by the swoosh
of a plastic bullet
coming from little Tony’s
The corpse free-falls
as gravity gains control.
The small bird
with the heart of a dinosaur
Its story unspoken,
after “Wishes for sons” by Lucille Clifton
I wish her steps in my shoes.
I wish her a strange room
alone and cold,
on paper thin doors,
my baby sisters in hand,
fresh out of foster care.
I wish her gardens of lies, a
the sweet stings
of sober dreams:
I’ll get clean,
it was just a mistake.
I wish her bloody knuckles
from days of fighting brick.
Scars on calloused hands,
murmurings of unwantedness.
I wish her steps in threadbare shoes,
but above all else
I wish her a long life,
full of happiness
(c) Daniel Diaz-Villafane, printed with permission from the author