American Latinx poet, author, editor, activist and spoken word artist Emanuel Xavier was born in humble circumstances in Brooklyn. Growing up in the 1970s, he was abandoned by his father, bullied by other children and kicked out of the house as a teenager after he told his mother he was gay. He eventually found his way into the wonders of the New York City ballroom scene and the House of Xtravaganza, as well as the drug trade and the perils of life on the streets.
When he landed a job at the LGBTQ bookstore A Different Light, Xavier finally discovered his love for writing. He soon began to build a reputation as one of the first and most celebrated openly gay poets at the Nuyorican Poets Café. He has published five collections of poetry and a volume of prose and is an editor of several collections of poetry and anthologies. Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier marks his first personally curated collection, spanning the many years of his remarkable career and never ceasing to articulate the beauty he sees all around him:
There are Gods among us in these ghettos
so black, so bright,
so brown, so beautiful,
Their time on Earth can be as oppressive as ignorance
limited to the demons that flow in their blood
but after returning safely to the clouds
the wind will still carry their auras and prophecies
their bones will still beat on drums
for their children to dance
the phoenix will still rise from the flames of paris
with hope in the womb
Kirkus Reviews calling Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier “a beautiful collection of poetry that displays compelling images with a unique voice.” Xavier, now a Penguin Random House contributor and founder of the Penguin Random House LGBTQ Network, says in the foreword that the collection “serves as my own personal journey through the long history of spoken word poetry, Nuyorican poetics and LGBTQ+ culture. I have been blessed with such a unique and varied life.Through so many challenges this art has kept me going.May it inspire others to continue sharing their stories and push to make this world a better place .”
Xavier’s “unique and diverse life” has taught him the value of visibility and representation of himself and his community on the written page. Even after the famous documentary Paris is on fire was released and his featured friends became celebrities, he found that New York City’s vibrant ballroom world and queer communities were not reflected on bookshelves. As his reputation as not only one of the finest emerging talents in spoken word poetry, but also one of the first openly gay poets began to rise, Xavier had his heart set on publishing his work.
He eventually self-published his first chapbook, Pier QueenBecause publishers did not take him seriously, Xavier quickly proved himself in the literary world. He even founded his own ballroom-style poetry house, the House of Xavier. Despite this and other successes, including being named an LGBTQ icon by the Equality Forum, Xavier remained relatively unknown to a wider poetry audience. He describes his pioneering work as ‘silently opening doors’ for the openly queer poets who came after him.
Those who are familiar with Xavier’s work are effusive in their praise. Alexander Chee is calling Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier a “proof of Xavier’s poetic talents and his legacy.” Sarah Schulman says that “For decades Emanuel Xavier has been our poet of the streets, of the balls, of the pier, through our loves, lost lives and in the growth and fall of our city”, and that “finally a new generation can breathe through his collected poems.”
When asked what he would like young queer people of color to get out of this collection today, Xavier hopes they “feel inspired to continue to preserve our history, because it’s important to reflect the world around us for future generations. We had to fight for our visibility and it might as well be taken away.”
Whether his own approach to art and poetry has changed over time since he first began writing, performing and publishing, Xavier, noting the many changes around widespread cultural ideas about LGBTQ+ rights and visibility that have occurred during his career , says that “I think cultural ideas around LGBTQ+ rights and visibility overtook my own sensitivities.” Xavier’s work often sparked controversy from conservative readers and sometimes from his own community, so he knows firsthand the importance of being ahead of the times. “I was inspired by poets who disturbed the peace, and I hope to inspire others in return.”
Whether through his work as an activist or his longstanding reputation as one of the brightest stars of the indie spoken word poetry scene – including an appearance on Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry-Xavier is always looking to use and share the love and meaning he found for himself in art with other young, queer people of color in need of healing. As he built a career, reputation and community through his poetry, Xavier was able to find hope despite not having the privilege he would need to access things like therapy or a prestigious literary education. While he cautions to point out that finding a love for art doesn’t always lead to the success and assurance he’s been able to achieve, he wants his readers to understand that money doesn’t outweigh skill and passion.
After 25 years of publishing poetry and looking back at his work creating this collection, Xavier feels “blessed” to have written enough poems that still hold true and appeal to audiences years later. Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier can be found in many bookstores across the country or on Xavier’s website, along with his previously published works.
Chelsea Ennen is a writer living in Brooklyn.