Last Saturday, poet Sonia Guiñansaca delivered an evening of spoken-word poetry in Dodd House’s living room.
Introducing Guiñansaca were Wintana Yohannes ’20 and Berline Osirus ’20, who performed their own works. Wintana reflected poignantly on her identity as an Eritrean American and insecurities about not being as in touch with Eritrean culture as she would like to be. Osirus, in her clear, resonating voice, simultaneously celebrated blackness and addressed the issue of cultural appropriation as she asked the audience knowingly, “Do you think they are trying to take our magic?”
Sonia Guiñansaca, as she describes herself in her biography, is a “queer, migrant feminist poet, cultural organizer and activist.” She was born in Ecuador and revealed her status as an illegal immigrant in 2007. These descriptions are important, as they are the pieces that make up her identity, the centrifugal force that holds her poetry together and gives it resonance. In her poetry reading, Guiñansaca shared poems that broached on heavy topics of homophobia, racism, sexism or, as she puts it, “all the –isms.” Yet, in between poems, she kept the conversation humorous and cheerful.
Introducing her first poem, Guiñansaca recounted how her name always gets butchered at her performances. In “Chronicles of Lost Name,” Guiñansaca provides a glimpse into her childhood in which her name was repeatedly mispronounced by her teacher and fellow students. In second person, Guiñansaca invited the listener into her own perspective: “You are told to write your name in a certain way / A public display of how wrong your parents were / And so you erase the swirl mami eloquently taught you when writing the S / Mom forgot to tell you these Ss never make it into books.” She forces the audience into her own shoes, and we share in her pain, defiance and strength against attempts both to erase and belittle her identity.
In the second half of the reading Guiñansaca introduced Kay Ulanday Barrett, her partner and fellow poet. In “Right to Release,” Barrett, a Filipino, trans-sexual, disabled artist, read what he introduced, self-effacingly, as an “obligatory bathroom poem,” in which he asks why if “bathrooms are where we are all most human, than I am a dilapidated National Geographic, barely mammal, told to leave in the dirtiest of places.”
In “Glory,” Guiñansaca sings a religious ode to “femmes of color / Whose celestial eye shadows crack the heavens / Whose thick thighs resurrect possibilities,” and elevates these women and their femininity, which society often disparages, to a place of divinity. Through her words, makeup and other idioms of femininity transform into identity-affirming matter, powerful and subversive in their unearthly beauty.
Not all of Guiñansaca’s poems have such resonance, however. “The Revolution,” a poem about masturbation, came off as gimmicky. Guiñansaca rattled off various puns, imperatives and adjectives that have to do with masturbating in the manner of a Buzzfeed list: “multiple orgasms!” and “the revolution will cum.” It’s a hilariously good time, but simultaneously cringey and clumsy. Some of her Undocu-Haikus seemed emotionally disconnected as well. In “UndocuWriting Haiku Part 2.0,” Guiñansaca recited, “Her brown reflection, windex-ed out of poetry, this is erasure.” Here, Guiñansaca’s poetry came off as a bit too referential, depending too much on the themes of anti-Latino racism and erasure to carry the poem, rather than the words themselves.
The magic of Sonia Guiñansaca’s poetry is in how expansive it is in spite of its reflective quality. Even though Guiñansaca writes of her own experiences as a queer, migrant feminist, her poetry is by no means introspective or shy; rather, she asserts her identity in a culture that seeks to erase it.