Magazine article The New Yorker

Lack of Center

Magazine article The New Yorker

Lack of Center

Article excerpt

LACK OF CENTER

Paolo Javier, the effervescent young poet who served as poet laureate of the borough of Queens from 2010 to 2014, wrestled at a hundred and ten pounds in high school. Dark, slim, vivid, un-aged, he looks as if he could still make the weight. "Actually, now I'm more like one-thirty-five," he said, as he walked around his neighborhood on a recent Saturday morning with a guy who likes his poetry and had come out to Sunnyside to meet him. Javier wore black jeans, dark shoes, a light-gray hoodie, a dark-gray thigh-length topcoat, and tortoiseshell shades. His mood was buoyant--his new collection, "Court of the Dragon," was about to be published. The Callery pear trees had reached peak bloom. The cold spring sun shone. Everybody was on the street.

Only two boroughs have poets laureate; Brooklyn is the other. More languages are spoken in Queens than in any place of comparable size on earth. So what and who should its poet laureate be? Well, take Javier: born in the Philippines, where he spoke English and Tagalog, and also understood some Spanish; moved to Katonah, New York, in seventh grade, when his father, an employee of PepsiCo, was transferred to the region; moved to Egypt the following year, when ditto; attended Cairo American College, an expat high school, where a teacher introduced him to the work of Robert Frost; learned some Arabic; moved with his family to Vancouver, where he discovered the work of Gertrude Stein; got a degree in creative writing from the University of British Columbia; ran an experimental theatre in Vancouver; accepted an offer to teach Tagalog at N.Y.U. in 1999; and moved to Queens, where he has lived ever since. His wife is Taiwanese-American, and his two-year-old daughter understands English, Mandarin, and Tagalog.

"In 2010, I saw an announcement posted in Listserve that Queens was looking for a new poet laureate," Javier recalled. "The term of the previous laureate, Julio Marzan, a Puerto Rican poet, had just ended. I applied online, and they invited me to the borough president's office, in Kew Gardens, to make a presentation. Six people sitting at a table. I was so nervous. Poet laureate is an unpaid position--we know that poetry is part of the gift economy--and I hadn't realized before how much it meant to me. A month or so later, they announced I had been chosen."

London plane trees leaned toward one another over the streets, vying for the light, while baby strollers multiplied on the sidewalks of Stillman Avenue, a main Sunnyside thoroughfare. …

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