John is well-known in northern Arizona as a poet, performer and event organizer. We discussed what poetry means to him and also what it was like to participate in the International World Poetry Slam in 2016, which took place in Flagstaff, Ariz. He now lives in Phoenix, works as an Events Representative for the Symphony and the Orpheum Theater. John also serves as a board member for Poetry Slam Inc.
By John Quinonez
I've made a terrible
habit of eating
Sun flowers - the
as in if
I see them
at my place of work
I lean into
& sometimes take
a goatish bite
or pluck each
let them dance
in the shelter
of my intent (eat them).
I mean what//
you are not
in this crowd,
when you are
Don't you know
I taste Flowers
when I wake
& think of you//
that if I simply stood
in your fond ponderings
or amongst them -
sure as sun//
as I am
day we met
will never leave
my mouth -
nor your name
setting into me
to buy Flowers.
Bunny Mag: When did you start writing poetry?
John Quinonez: Oh Lord. I'm not sure exactly. I've always been interested in reading and music and painting/drawing/making art since I was a tiny little pumpkin. I think at some point I found poetry or sometimes songwriting as just a means to play with aspects of all three of those things. It's really like finger-painting with words in a lot of ways — at least how I see it. That probably has a lot to do with my complete lack of education with academic writing outside of high school standards, to be honest. I've said this before in regards to organizing events, but I didn't ever pursue writing. I moved to Flagstaff for a degree in Art Education, and once I started working and putting shows together it became more and more important to me to integrate all these different arts in my productions. It seemed pretty silly that all these different entities and people stayed in their separate little boxes and I just always really enjoyed being exposed to as many things as possible. I attended the Flagstaff Poetry Slam a lot when I was 18 or so, and really loved the energy they brought into that room (111 South San Francisco St. at the time) — from outside looking in it was one of the few places that already served as a common ground for these diverse groups of people — age and media pursuits — to come together and be vulnerable and goofy. Long story short: when I took over booking at 22 East Route 66 — then Sundara, now Firecreek — I really wanted to build a home where events like that could continue to grow and flourish. At some point I kept connecting the dots and pushing events in our literary programming scene until I was like, 'Oh shit ... I should probably actually write something.'
BM: Why were you initially drawn to poetry? What keeps you coming back?
JQ: I really adore the sense of play that poetry allows. On any day I would much rather be pulled into a painting rather than see every brushstroke from the outside, ya know? Writing poetry and playing with every bit of imagery, down to the punctuation, has been a way for me to repaint my narrative. That sense of accessibility or just being able to grab a pen and notebook has been a great gift to me especially as I tend to work a lot and don't necessarily have the physical space to create in the other ways I like to. It's been very nice to create these little pockets to rest in myself, and all I could hope for my life is that sometimes people join me in those spaces.
BM: What are the differences between solitary poetry writing versus communal poetry — such as performing or slam poetry?
JQ: I think this has a lot to do with intent. If you are writing for your eyes only that is one thing, but I think if you mean to share your work there should not be any difference. Once you put a piece of writing into the world it is already being performed — maybe not with deliberation, but every time somebody reads your work, your voice is making itself present to that person. Writers spend so much time choosing their words, punctuation, etc. so carefully and I think that labor in itself delivers a bit of yourself to your audience. If you have the opportunity to perform your own work I think it's really important that you show why all those choices matter. People get hung up on the difference between page and performance poetry, but the only real difference is that a "slam poet" is making the choice of at least one of their venues.
BM: What feelings and/or experiences do you often find yourself drawing upon when writing?
JQ: Ya know, I have been trying to pin this down as of late. I don't often go into writing thinking that I am going to reflect on a certain experience, or message. More often than not things just kind of sneak up on me. I am much more likely to write about a bird and accidentally start giving away a bit of myself, rather than the other way around. It's honestly pretty funny to me most of the time. Since I've started performing my work more it has been really interesting to see how people react to my stuff. It tends to be pretty all over the board — folks will be crying or laughing really hard at the exact same passage on different sides of the room. Oddly enough I think that is pretty true to how I tackle life, with equal parts honest sorrow and comedy. So something is going right. Or terribly wrong.
BM: For you, what is the hardest part about being creative?
JQ: Needing to be (creative), but not being able to do so at will. It's like knowing you are gifted with flight but only sometimes. Very dangerous. And anxiety producing.
BM: What was participating in IWPS like? Do you have a particular memory you would like to share?
I was very happy and proud to be able to create and share that space with my team and extended (poet) family. I am sure I will be unpacking that experience for the rest of my life, but now that there has been some time between here and there, it has been a delight to hear back some of the memories people made there, and see some of the work I missed via social media. I was an absolutely wreck that week, floating above everything in a lot of ways being the guy running around, but am super thankful that I am getting to experience it with a purer lens in retrospect.
BM: Why is slam poetry particularly effective for bringing people together?
JQ: By its very design, Slam is meant to be a big game and spectacle to get people to make time and listen to poetry. It doesn't work without the involvement of both the audience and performers. It's also fun. So don't be a dweeb about it - go.
BM: What artists do you look up to, or turn to for inspiration?
JQ: Oh god we don't have the time! I have been so so lucky to be in close proximity to many folks that I already admire. To give Flagstaff its due nod - Please give the written and performed works of Evan Dissinger, Claire Pearson, Wil Williams, Kimberly Jarchow, Gabbi Jue, Rowie Shebala, Justin Bigos, Erin Stalcup, and Eric Dovigi some time. Go see the gallery of the Hozhoni Foundation or any of their gallery productions in the community. Go to an event Ian Keirsey is hosting. Have a drink at Uptown Pubhouse if you are able to. Elsewhere — check out the stellar work of Pizza Pi Press and Drunk in a Midnight Choir. Look into the Artist Ray Johnson. Eat a really nice sandwich.
BM: What advice would you tell someone who is just starting off writing poems?
At the end of the day, you are always going to answer to yourself. Make the choices that bring you pride and joy, and find yourself some editors — professional, friends — that know how to give you feedback meaningful to your own goals.