From the Headbanger, the Metalhead, All the Way to the Failed Hip-Hopper: An Interview with Wingston González

For me, poetry is the metadata of life.

If I were to describe Wingston González as a poet, I’d say he’s an unusual poet. Scratch that. To be more precise, the fractured aesthetics, the cadence, the triplets, the vertiginous narrative found in Wingston’s poetry, can only be summoned by the unusual artistic upbringing he had. Born in Livingston, brought up on Garífuna culture, traditional Guatemalan education, classical literature, and hip-hop music, Wingston stands as an undeniably original and musical wordsmith—utterly unique within the tradition of Guatemalan literature.

He is also an entrancing performer and a fascinating poet that keeps changing and augmenting his cultural and intellectual heritage.

Early July, Wingston and I got together at Casa Cervantes in downtown Guatemala City to talk about his creative process. Of course, we effortlessly drifted towards other topics. We ended up talking about music—like we often do—and ignoring the mathematical structure on which language is based. Wingston’s poetry, I might argue, has almost an allergic reaction to the formulaic configuration of Spanish. And it is thanks to that free will and unhindered flow that his verses explode and reach out with utter casualness.  

Wingston argued that as time passes, he is less worried about fulfilling what is expected of him as a poet. The narrative fabric of his poetry is often based on everyday life and he admits he thrives on capturing that everydayness, either through the plot, though mostly through the words.

During the translation process of the Four Poems, featured in Asymptote’s Summer 2018 issue, he repeatedly confessed that while writing them he was concerned people might not understand what he was trying to say.

“I wanted to play with the language, but I was unsure if it made any sense,” he insisted, and months later, in Casa Cervantes, he repeated that line.

The result—and his poetry in general—though intellectual and highly literary, is also tinged with elements of the quotidian plus the type of slang and idiolects found in Livingston, in Guatemala. From references to Garífuna culture, musical narrative, unorthodox rhythmic pattern, ritualistic cadence, inventive spelling, stutters, theatrical delivery, and—as he calls them—a set of useless facts, these Four Poems show many of the poet’s tricks, antics, and cultural inheritance. His unrestrained flow truly showcases the vitality he wants to impregnate in his poetry.

José García Escobar (JGE): Your poems featured in Asymptote’s July issue, I think, are a perfect example of the type of aesthetics you used at the beginning of your career. In them, there is a lot of experimentation, musicality, unusual rhythm and unorthodox narration—things you rarely use now. How has your approach towards poetry changed over the years?

Wingston González (WG): I don’t know if my approach has changed, but the process definitely has. Naturally, when you start writing, you’re not entirely aware of what you’re doing. The act of writing becomes automatic. That happened to me. But right now I’m not as worried as I was in the past with the limitations of language. I’m more concerned with the limitations of human nature. I think that with my poetry I’m getting closer to how I speak every day. That is my intention now, to use everyday language. Even if these poems, the ones featured in Asymptote’s Summer 2018 issue, are pretty experimental, I remember I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to communicate what I was trying to say. I thought, “What am I doing with my ax!” I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to reach the reader. Now I’m not as concerned about this.

JGE: How did that evolution happen?

WG: By reading, talking, practicing, and writing, above all. I took an interest in learning how people speak, what their everyday life is like. Music also played its part in this. Movies, art in general too. I became interested in the ancient times as well, and how language was used then. History, literature, and the historical sources of data too. For me, poetry is the metadata of life.

JGE: Does that linguistic musicality—the one available in these poems—always find its way into your creative process? Is music still part of your poetry, not as an influence, but as the architecture of your writing?

WG: I suppose. But I would say that linguistic musicality finds its way into my speech process, and that process finds its way into my poetry. It’s like the origin of music. I think of how groups of Homos Sapiens used to walk, all at a similar pace, to go unnoticed. You can find the creation of rhythm and music there. And you can see this throughout the human race. Even the most linguistically limited people have their own syntactic structures. This fascinates me. And rhythm is not only available in words, but in how you amplify language with your hands, for example. I hear poetry in all these places—that musicality you mention.

JGE: What is your relationship with the limitations of language? I feel that you easily jump out of the limits offered by spelling, grammar, rhythm, etc.

WG: This is what I have to offer. I don’t like to restrict language. I do this as a necessity. I’m not even aware of the rules. And this is not about philology or literature. This is part of my emotional needs and how I can respond to them using a poem.

JGE: You also mentioned that, in these poems, you tried to maintain some of the cadence and rhythm of the Garífuna language. You told me that people you met in Livingston—people that speak Garífuna and Spanish—inspired some of the characters that appear in these poems. How did you balance Garífuna with Spanish as a kid?

WG: I grew up speaking Garífuna. I used Garífuna until I got into school. My grandmother, who spoke Garífuna and Spanish, used to say things like, “You’re going to school now, and you have to speak Spanish; otherwise you’ll fail your classes.” So I dropped the Garífuna. It was a type of linguistic weaning. People taught me that Spanish was the average language and the one that will allow me to make the best out of education. From then on I spoke in Spanish. And then I found out about a different kind of Spanish—a Spanish I found in books that was different from the one I heard in school or out in the streets, or out of the mouths of the characters I told you about. And I took that new kind of Spanish and used it to color my speech. Right now I’m trying to recover Garífuna. I find beauty in it. Currently, people are teaching in Garífuna and Q’eqchi’ in Livingston, though Spanish is still the predominant language. And speaking of languages, English was also an essential part of my upbringing.

JGE: How so?

WG: In my house, we started paying for cable service in 1993. And the one we paid for had this hip-hop channel, BET—

JGE: Really? I don’t think that even the cable service in Guatemala City had access to BET.

WG: Well, there you go. I imagined that you and people in the city learned English through MTV. I learned English thanks to BET, so a lot of hip-hop. Wu-Tang Clan, Common, Public Enemy—

JGE: Can I take a guess?

WG: Sure.

JGE: Based on your poetry I have the feeling that Rakim played a big part in the structure of your writing, or at least in these poems.

WG: I don’t know him. But take into consideration that I wasn’t disciplined. After Public Enemy I might have listened to Dizzy Gillespie, or Ray Charles, or musicians from Livingston. But there is one album, from Vico C called Aquel que había muerto, that was fundamental in my artistic formation. That album keeps teaching me about the responsibility we as poets have with our language, our community, with the present, with everything.

JGE: Canta algo que no solamente rime, rime—Sing something that doesn’t only rhyme, rhyme? 

WG: Exactly. But then I also gravitated towards the Latin-American trova, pop, Black Metal, Death Metal, bands like Morbid Angel—

JGE: Can we trace the theatricality of your readings to these musical interests?

WG: Yes, without a doubt, from the headbanger, the metalhead, all the way to the failed hip-hopper.

JGE: How did you balance Garífuna later on as a poet? Has it found its way into your writing in any way?

WG: It never did. Not until now, I guess.

JGE: Was it a conscious decision to write in Spanish and not in Garífuna?

WG: No. It was what I had available.

JGE: Can you talk about some of the artistic influence that Livingston—and Livingston art—had for you?

WG: Livingston has a large tradition of troubadours. This is part of something that is built and modified by the community. Someone takes the lyrics of a song and by singing it he or she modifies it. Our culture has been based on the remix. That affected me dearly. I think of troubadours like Juan Carlos Sánchez, Paul Nabor, Andy Palacio, and Aurelio Martínez.

JGE: Rhythmically, your poetry also has an unusual structure. Can you tell me about your strategy when it comes to building or destroying the structure within your poetry?

WG: With the poems featured here, I would simply write. This was in 2008, a time of questions and doubts, of trying to define poetry. I had existential doubts, spiritual interests. However, this also comes from the fact that I wanted to be a rapper. But I used to have a stutter, and I was really shy. I had no speed, no flow. But then I understood that I could recreate that flow with my poetry.

JGE: Which writers or musicians influenced that structure?

WG: Where do I begin? The surrealists had a huge impact on me. Then came César Moro and César Vallejo. José Espronceda, too—I found him in the Enciclopedia de la Juventud in Livingston’s library. Then, next to those writers, there were reggae singers, Panamanian reggae singers, and, of course, rap music.

JGE: I heard that you recently started a translation project called Waníchugu, through which you will translate texts into Garífuna. What can you tell me about Waníchigu?

WG: I can tell you about my experience with translation, which, for me, is founded on trying to learn my mother language again. And the best way for me to do this was to translate into the Garífuna and relearn Garífuna through translation. Waníchigu is a rocket that doesn’t take off, mostly due to economic limitations. But I will offer my linguistic experiences, my experiences as an accumulator—I accumulate useless facts, books, cultures, data, and I want to bring all that to the Garífunas. I started translating Senghor’s Chants d’ombre. Right now I’m working on Leaves of Grass. In the end, what I want to do with Waníchigu is to contribute to the Garífuna culture. I want to know my mother language again. But I also want to find books that make me want to translate them, print them, and give them to friends and schools across Livingston.

JGE: Can you share with me one of those useless facts you mention?

WG: Let’s see. One from the animal kingdom. Octopuses are capable or mimicking almost any color. They have an insurmountable system of camouflage. But what fascinates me the most about octopuses is how they are able to understand the mechanics of human artifacts, they know how the top of a bottle works, and they’re able to open it effortlessly.

Translated from the Spanish by José García Escobar

Photo credit to Victoria Castañeda

Wingston González (b. 1986) is a Garífuna poet from Guatemala. His poetry collection traslaciones won the prestigious Luis Cardoza y Aragón Mesoamerican Poetry Prize in 2015. His other books include Los magos del crepúsculo (y blues otra vez) (2005), CafeínaMC: segunda parte, la fiesta y sus habitantes (2010), CafeínaMC: primera parte, la anunciación de la fiesta (2011), san juan—la esperanza (2013, 2015), Miss muñecas vudu (2013), Espuma sobre las piedras (a documentation of Alejandra Garavito’s choreography and the author’s poems, 2014), ¡Hola Gravedad! (translation into the German by Timo Berger, 2016), and Nuevo manual para una educación sentimental (with artwork by Bernabé Arévalo, 2017). He has collaborated on perfomance poems with Naufus Ramírez Figueroa: lugar de consuelo, which was commissioned for the Coração do espantalho play (2016), part of the 32nd São Paulo Art Biennial; A Universal History of Infamy, for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and la playa espera por vos for the Linnæus in Tenebris expo for the CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux (2017). He is an editor and translator for Waníchugu, a Garífuna-based publishing house. He is a member of La Retaguardia, an independent art collective based in Guatemala City.

José García Escobar is a journalist, fiction writer, translator, and former Fulbright scholar from Guatemala. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in New York City. His writing has appeared in The Evergreen ReviewGuernica, and Words Without Borders. He is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for the Central American region and currently works as a journalist in Plaza Pública.


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