“Master of Words” : Q Culture

Master Of Words

Queens Poet Laureate Honored By His Post

Julio Marzán (third from l.) stands with former Queens poet Laureates(l. to r.) Hal Sirowitz, Ishle Yi Park and Stephen Stepanchev.

By Liz Skalka

Julio Marzán almost appears too cool to hold a bureaucratic title: Queens Poet Laureate. Moreover, he admits that his job doesn’t involve much beyond attending the occasional poetry reading.

“I had no idea who the committee was composed of, what it entailed,” Marzán said of applying for the position, though he added that his being chosen came as “a pleasant surprise.”

The engaging 61-year-old from Little Neck casually attributes his being selected to “politics,” and said he’ll describe what the position entails once he does something. He jokes, of course, and that’s part of his charm.

The Best Choice

Marzán, who has lived in the borough for 36 years, was chosen to be Queens’ fourth poet laureate in May. To be considered for the title, candidates need to have lived in Queens for at least two years, have published poetic works and have composed poetry that in some way reflects the borough.

As a former visiting professor at Harvard University and as a native of Puerto Rico, Marzán can speak broadly about Latino literature. For Marzán, the art lies in the classics, which he says are overlooked nowadays. “Nobody wants to go back and read the literature that’s there,” he said. This is the crux of Marzán’s argument against the Latino literature being produced today, and a theme in his work.

Marzán also laments the decline of the English language and its lack of clarity. “We don’t listen to all the crap we say to ourselves,” he said with a slight grin, referring to colloquialisms. “[They’re] being used everywhere and we’re defenseless.”

Clearly, one can refer to Marzán as one of the borough’s resident scholars. He has been a professor at Nassau Community College for 15 years. He has also written two books of poetry – “Translations Without Originals” (Reed Books) and “Puerta de Tierra” (University of Puerto Rico Press) – as well as other works in various genres.

Marzán has incorporated Queens settings into his works, but only as a jumping-off point; the location may be Queens, but the themes are universal. “The cultural differences are sharp and they create the opportunity to create a metaphor rather than actual maps,” he said.

In his poem “Utopia Parkway,” Marzán used Queens as a setting:

“Airport fumes/ always transport me/ to that island/ no longer mapped/ and my wheels/ touch that life/ always dreamed/ from New York.”

A Late Bloomer

Marzán began composing poetry while in college, though not much thought went into his decision to do so. “One day I was in the subway and I didn’t know what I wanted to do and for some reason I decided this was what I wanted to do… I can’t explain it, it just happened,” he said.

He then enrolled in a writing course at Fordham University, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree, and was praised highly by his professor. Since then, Marzán has received numerous awards for his work, including the Dylan Thomas Memorial Award presented by The New School.

Though Marzán’s three-year tenure as Queens Poet Laureate got off to a slow start this summer, his schedule for the upcoming months is filling up quickly. He will do readings Sept. 17 at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Oct. 13 at the Queens Museum of Art and Oct. 17 at St. John’s University.

Marzán is currently working on several books and continues to write poetry. Although, like any artist, his process is intricate and his works often take a while to complete. “Every syllable strikes a chord,” he said, “and when it’s right, it’s right.”

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