I had the honor of sitting down with Shey Rivera at AS220 in Providence, Rhode Island to discuss her work as a poet, artist, curator, and director. You can read or listen below!
Katie Clark: So I’m just going to start off by reading a few lines of your bio:
Shey is the artistic director of AS220, the co-founder of Las Tenoras poetry collective, founder of the Latinx Arts and Music Magazine Crudo, producer of the performance series Luna Loba and Flexus Moon Cabaret.
AND, this year you self-published a book of poetry, called Los Buitres which you can actually order through AS220’s online shop, and you participated in two performance and multi-media arts residencies, one in Pittsburgh and one in Santiago. You had a gallery opening of Fantasy Island, an immersive multimedia installation and performance reflecting upon the debt crisis in Puerto Rico and you have another showing coming up in New York in October.
So I just really wanted to read that so you saw how out of breath I got, not even going into your community outreach work. So, my question would be, how do you create space for yourself to create?
Yeah, wow. Well just hearing you read all of it… I was like oh damn, I did all of that stuff? That’s a lot of work. Um, yeah so I think that for me it’s just important to consider the creative process and the artistic production as something holistic and tied to everything I do in my life. So the work of AS220 feeds my artistic practice and then vice-versa. I see my work as an artist– I’m a very collaborative type of artist– so that helps me develop relationships and connect in genuine ways to other people so that also creates brave or safe space for other artists to make and create, and that feeds AS220 as well.
And AS220, how it brings to the table just, unpacking and deconstructing all of the ways in which we are taught artists are supposed to make, create, behave, and be, it’s completely, it’s such an amazing experience to just challenge those conceptions and then define that for yourself. So that’s my approach. I just constantly make and create– it’s so bizarre. One of our staff people told me once, asked me once do you do anything normal? Like, do you watch TV? And I had to think about that for like, two weeks! Do I do things? What are things that are considered normal? I don’t know what that means. So I’m just often creating and making. Yeah, I just see everything through a lens of making.
So… do you do anything normal?
I think I do. I like going to the beach! I like having tea at home on my porch.
There you go, that’s normal enough! You have a really great story about the dangers of performance art if you’d like to share that with us?
That’s a cool one. Well, the first time… well, first off: I was never into conceptual art. I did not understand it, I did not get it, back in the day or whatever. And then, eventually I completely fell in love with it as a space that was much more personal and intimate. So the first time I ever did performance art, I was invited to AS220, an event at AS220, at the Blackbox called 95 Ono. And artists were invited to perform one or two pieces of Yoko Ono’s work in her Grapefruit book. And I had never performed anything like that in my life but I was like, yeah sure. They invited me because they figured I liked Yoko Ono, which I do, I love her. And I picked the “Tunafish Sandwich Piece” and I picked “Drinking for Orchestra.” And in “Drinking for Orchestra,” specifically just had this vision. It’s such a great piece of text, and I was walking on Hope St, I think it was Hope St, or Wickenden, and there was an aquarium there. And I had filmed koi fish, just would have all of these footage pieces that I would never use, so I was like oh my god, this is what I’m going to create– I’m going to project large, the image of the koi fish breathing, and I’m going to take a tub of water, and I’m going to have three gallons of water, and I’m going to be in the tub, and it will be this idea of trying to breathe, trying to survive. So taking the gallons of water and then dumping them on me, trying to drink them. I did not calculate how cold the water was, and how dangerous this actually was, and um, so it was a really, it was a powerful experience. And then a friend of mine, Jason Curzake, who was performing in the event too, felt compelled, after he saw me struggling and almost drowning to like, you know, gently come in, nondescript, and help take another gallon of water and pour it over me and that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and a creative collaboration that we called ISLANDS.
Yeah, what a normal beginning story!
I think about it when Jason and I make it to be sixty, we’ll be old people on a balcony. Being like, Oh do you remember that time when we started performing? You know, a tub of water, almost drowning
I imagine you recreating the moment.
Yeah, yeah. That tub of water made it to a few more performances, too.
There you go, good continuation story. So, as someone who works in such a wide span of different mediums, how do you follow your work to how it manifests? So for example, how did you know that Fantasy Island would need to take the form that it did?
Yeah, well that’s actually a really good question. So there are different ways in which I approach the process of art-making, but it always comes from either conversation or text. So like, poetry is still the core of my work. All of the performance and visual and anything that I do in every other medium is an extension of how I think poetically and conversation-wise, because I love talking to people and then ideas generate points of connection, and then when you– I feel like it’s so important and powerful when you have a piece of work that is something that people do relate to, and they do talk about, especially when they have these moments of intimacy. We have these intimate moments of having deep conversations with people and you really get to know what they care about. And you’re like Oh! I care about that too, and you create a piece that can stir that emotion in other folks. So, that’s kind of part of it. That’s how ISLANDS was born. Jason and I would get together and talk about our upbringing– me in Puerto Rico and him in Block Island, and this whole idea of isolation and indulgence and what does it mean to be born in a place that’s closed off from everything else, and the importance of dream and memory. So that’s how we started working together. All of these conversations just turned into performance art pieces.
Another great story. Is there anything that you haven’t addressed in your work that you would like to?
Well, at the very, very beginning my work used to be purely esoteric and more intimate and personal in a less political way. I think the fact that I’m Puerto Rican, and I’m a woman of color, and I also transit queerness, makes the work political, but it’s not in an intentional way, it’s more inherently because of who I am. But! This has been a step– because everything that’s happening back home– to be more intentional in carrying out a message that can contribute to a political cause or social cause to spark more thought around how can we improve a situation of a community or a city. And that relates to my work at AS220, so doing more toward that is where I’m at.
Absolutely. Kind of speaking to that, you have a lot of poems that address sort of an unidentified “you.” How do you balance that personal and that political and that universal in your work?
Well, that “you” is actually just multiple dimensions. Like, the same way that now we’re deconstructing gender, that’s the same way I always saw the voice in my poetry, I could start speaking to the “you” that is me, but then the “you” that is me transforms into a “you” that is another person, it could be a faraway person or it could be a person that is connected, or it could become the voice of a country or a larger community. So, I do like playing with that idea because it brings a sense of being part of something and the fact that you’re not alone, you operate under, in a system, in a holistic way. People are part of you, you are part of them. So that’s at least how I approach it. Sometimes some of my friends go Oh my god this is a super powerful erotic poem, who did you write it about? And I’m like Nobody, I just wrote it about the idea of eroticism in itself. And that almost like wanting to conjure it.
Yeah, absolutely, that was going to my question– is anyone, like, is that about me??
There have been poems that have been inspired by people, that’s for sure, but I blend them in. It’s like erase, blur the lines.
This might be a good moment to have you read a poem…
Ooh. It’s so funny, I still get so self conscious when I have to do this.
Even in the poetry slam, I was like Oh right, cool, let me hype myself up. But, I always get nervous. So, I published Los Buitres, and the next body of work is called Hyenas. So that’s another, it’s a similar format, but this poem is part of the book Hyenas, and it’s called “The side, the box, the cage.”
~Listen to Shey Rivera read the poem in the audio above~
Is there anything you would like to share about your intentionality with that poem?
This poem? Ooh. This poem is a hard one. A lot of my poems, like everybody, I feel, they do carry personal stories in them, with a mix of dream and memory and images, but this one was specifically about a very difficult intimate connection I had with someone. And then recognizing that, you know, you can develop very intimate and powerful and special connections with people that are not necessarily productive or positive, and they can be very toxic.
I have heard that. So your work, especially this poem, but I think it carries through at least a lot of the new collection, or at least what I’ve heard of it, but it has such a thick consistency. So what are your favorite things to work with when you’re writing, to kind of create that material?
I like slickness, for sure. I like texture, I like sound to have a certain level of volume. So, I love images, I love using… I love transporting people just with texture and sound and aroma– If I can just paint a picture for you, whether it’s linear or not, for you to conjure these sensory experiences, that’s kind of what I go for. So, I don’t know! I like sound a lot. I’m a musician, and percussion is super important to me, so I’ve come to realize that a lot of my poetry really is based on sound and music rather than specifically poetic structures.
Do you listen to anything when you write?
What’s your go-to?
I have quite a few go-to’s… but I like just stuff that I would listen to from back home, that connects me to me, and also things that help me elevate my work to a more like, so that I can envision more, like more new or more futuristic textures of talking and feeling. Like, for example, Robi Draco, is a Puerto Rican musician, he’s a total Bohemian dude– he’s like the Chris Cornell of Puerto Rico. So I like him because his music has a lot of texture, he combines different rhythms and it almost feels like you’re hanging out in a dark, in a night jungle beach, you know it’s like, cool I want to channel that.
And Gustavo Cerati is an Argentinian composer and musician. He was a big deal in the nineties, he passed away. His band was called Soda Stereo, they were a very important Latin American band, and they also have this vibe that is really decadent, you know, rock based, but still very bohemian which is super cool. And then I just feel like their music is so– even though they’re both male singers– they just transit… it’s just such a very rich type of music that goes beyond masculinity, know? I really appreciate that.
And then tons of music from new artists, like SZA. I love, love SZA. I love FKA Twigs. I love all that stuff. Yeah.
Are their any particular artists you go to when you’re looking to be inspired?
Mmm. Well, depending on where I’m at… I do listen to a lot of hard music, like Deftones, like there’s a couple of bands like Popstrangers… I like some hard stuff, and either that or more ambient type of electronic music.
I have a pretty eclectic taste I have to say, like it’s interesting. I used to be more rock-based and metal-based and punk, but I’ve expanded for sure.
So you’ve mentioned the new book you’re working on. I think my biggest question– before I ask you to tell us about it at more length– would be what is the process of writing it look like for you?
Oh woah, okay. So different layers, for sure. Like, I start with a thought, an idea. Sometimes those thoughts and ideas come at moments in which I don’t plan them and I need to just jot them down and then build them out and then layering. Just trying to shape. So it’s a little bit of a puke here, and then puke more, and then alright cool, let me shape the rock. Super gross analogy, but
But it’s kind of like that. I do, I did have to click myself out of an editing vortex because I would be so guilty of doing that and I’d be like no, I have to change this, I have to change that, and then after two weeks I go back to the poem and I like how I wrote it originally. And I’m like okay I need to put a cap on my desire to edit, but yeah. And working with a friend and co-editor has been immensely helpful to to get another perspective on the work as well.
Especially from somebody who reads a lot more poetry than I do, and has a different perspective.
Do you ever feel like you’re more critical of yourself as a writer because you absorb so much other art?
Absolutely, yep, on point. Sometimes I get saturated, too, and I’m like oh my god how is this going to build into something?
That makes sense,
But it also could be– the opposite could happen, where it’s like I might just generate two lines of a poem, and then the poem doesn’t want to grow, but then a whole idea and concept about a visual piece or a video piece evolves out of that. So that’s also what I’m trying to explore more.
What are your ambitions for this book? What do you want it to sort of mean or feel to you?
Well this book, I wanted it to be more transiting between dream and memory. So I want it more to be like concrete experiences but also these like, ethereal images that challenge that too. So just to kind of like liberate the reader to be free to transit both. And to think just more existentially, and I have to say that even though I’m a goofball most of the time, I’m super serious and deep. But yeah so I like that kind of stuff. But I do want to start– so every time that I publish a book or I create a body of work that is text based, I am exploring ways to turn that into performance, a lot lot more. So with The Hyenas, this whole concept of me reclaiming my identity and really speaking to my experience back home, reclaiming memory of childhood and all these landscapes, is a big part of it. So in the performances I try to channel that. I try to make, you know, use the tools I have to just paint that environment for people. One of the coolest things I’ve gotten from people is telling me that they felt transported to a rainforest in Puerto Rico– and I’m like that’s wild!
That’s perfect. Cool. Achievement.
And this body of work you’re publishing in English, correct?
What was the story behind that choice?
eah, I really wanted to publish something that would be more accessible to people here on multiple dimensions. Los Buitres was important for me to publish in Spanish, all those pieces were in Spanish, and that’s my native language, but I do want it to be more accessible to everybody else, and translating is such a tricky, tricky thing to do, so, yeah I decided to make Hyenas sort of like the English speaking version of what I tried to conjure in Los Buitres.
So, my favorite final question is always A. What are you excited about right now? And B. What is next?
Well, I’m really excited about FANTASY ISLAND. I think that, you know, that is the place where I can deposit energy to contribute something to what’s happening back home, and to engage more people, and educate, and shift the landscape, and inform, and oppose the misconceptions that are around it, but through art. You know, when I think about… it’s so powerful to be able to make it in a way that people don’t feel like they’re preached at. I feel like that’s the power of art, as like communication, as experience, as you know, something that can excite people and elevate the message, you know. So I’m excited about FANTASY ISLAND. It’s gonna be in New York in October. Super cool. And a lot more people are getting engaged on it. So that’s exciting. Plus it’s pushing me creatively on another level. It’s, I’ve always wanted to do immersive experiences in immersive spaces so that’s giving me the opportunity to move more in that direction.
And to do some… blending,
do some 3D modeling! So I can create a 3D virtual reality FANTASY ISLAND!
So, so normal. You know, can’t be too ambitious.
We all have Saturdays.
We all have Saturdays. As long as there’s ice cream and iced tea, I’m good.
There you go, and what is next after Fantasy Island and The Hyenas?
Yeah, well what is next is… Fantasy Island needs to grow so other people can contribute work to it. And then, Las Hyenas, I’m gonna publish that. And then Luna Loba continues, which is the series that I launched about a year ago, two years ago, and then we’ll see. It’s the world.
Alright, fair. Well, thank you very much!
Want more information? Find out more about Shey Rivera here, and about AS220 here.
FANTASY ISLAND will be at the The Loisaida, Inc. Center until Saturday, November 18th. Find out more about the events associated here.