Poetry as an Agent of Change: "Voces" Creators Ana Portnoy and Jessica Muñoz

Lately, poetry has come back into social life as a force to be reckoned with. Voces manages to bring together poets from the island to make their verses public. Its creator, Jessica Muñoz organizes open mics, musical events, among other cultural activities in order to promote poetry. The next step in her project, along with Ana Portnoy, will be to organize poetry slams, which are basically poetry competitions all over the island. However, the Voces women explain how the project is much more than that.

Muñoz explains how her dream started, when she tried to open an eco-friendly Open Mic café, La Salita Café in Old San Juan. However, the people helping her pocketed her money and, reluctantly, she decided to continue her dream. As she moved on, she decided to host poetry and music events in order to provide “the same platform as if I had my own space.”

Muñoz performing her poetry.

Evidently, poetry is essential for both women.  Portnoy, a poet and graduate student at the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras, defined it as a “filter” through which one can “criticize and analyze reality.” She added that poetry is a community consolidator, “an agent of change, it’s revolutionary, it’s lucha.” It’s an art that has been life-changing for both women. For Muñoz, it started with a journal she kept when as a young woman: it is catharsis, self-expression. Meanwhile, Portnoy believes that “to change the world” is a lot of pressure. However, poetry is an art form that can handle it. “I definitely believe poetry is an agent of social change, as a medium through which to visibilize obliterated stories . . . and as a conscientizing force.”

For all poets, there is always that one poem or poet that mark that “Eureka moment” when they discovered their love for poetry. For Muñoz, her love was awoken by Maya Angelou and her strength. Muñoz admits that “she lacked a strong woman figure and always felt a ‘wow’ with each of her pieces I read.” Afterwards, it was Luis Lloréns Torres that fully nourished her passion for poetry, for it was his words that taught Muñoz about art form’s power for social change. Portnoy finds that she’s been influenced by Nuyorican/Puerto Rican Diaspora, Chicanx poetry, and by contemporary spoken word/poetry slam traditions and culture.  

Portnoy performing her poetry.

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Portnoy considers herself a political poet, and when we asked her for some quick, top-of-the-head verses, she said:

“I don't think atoms are the smallest constituents of our being, I don't think cells are our basic structural units; I think stories are. I believe stories lie at the very core of our being, that they are foundational to our existence as humans. I think they are as much a part of us, as vital to our survival, as the heart pumping inside our chest. Our conversations, our jokes, our thoughts, our memories, our rants are stories, we use the narrative form to make sense of reality and of ourselves. It ain’t really blood running through our veins; I think that if you cut us open, stories will just start pouring out.”

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Muñoz began the Voces project in September 2016 and Portnoy joined a little over three months ago. Portnoy described how her involvement began when she attended a poetry slam at Celebrate Puerto Rico that Muñoz was hosting in Old San Juan. It was part of an experimental poetry slam series called “Voces Showcase.” After Portnoy recited some of her poems, Muñoz approached her with her ideas and plans: “She had me at ‘wepa.’” Ever since, the twosome reveal that it has been especially fulfilling to work together and discover how passionate they are about poetry and their community. “La hermandad that we’re trying to foster between poetry and community, entre la poesía y el pueblo, makes this project special, accessible and inclusive,” Portnoy adds.

Despite what many people believe, Muñoz is firm in her belief that “poesia en la calle is alive and booming on the island.” They are often tucked away in the barrios where a a sense of camaraderie exists. Muñoz expressed that it was this amazing community of artists combined with the island’s political turmoil that inspired her to start her Poetry Slam events. “The poetry slams are more than just a competition,” she explains: they provide an evening of education and solidarity.

The project’s mission aims rekindle the spoken word and poetry slam tradition in the island. This poetry slam project, “Voces Showcase Series Road Trip” is hosting poetry slams across the Island, hoping to recruit a winner from each poetry slam. Those winners will qualify to the Grand Slam on June 2017 at El Teatro Victoria Espinosa in Santurce. The poetry slam in La Tertulia, Mayagüez, on February 24 at 8 PM, is one of the many slams that will be taking place across Puerto Rico. 

The judges for the slam will be randomly chosen from the audience regardless of whether they have knowledge of poetry. This is not just about being judged, it’s about being able to “move” the average person. “This is what Spoken Word and Poetry Slams is about,” Muñoz explained. She added, “It’s about proving that you can awaken a community with poetry and we can use this vehicle to invoke them to action!”

A team of 5 winning poets from the Grand Slam will represent Puerto Rico and compete in the National Poetry Slam (PSi) competition in Denver, Colorado in August 2017, which would be a first for Puerto Rico. It will be a beautiful experience and excellent opportunity to bring our voice, our fight, to invoke a bigger audience!

Like La Salita Café on Facebook and check out their website. For more information about the Poetry Slam at La Tertulia, click here.

If you’re interested in participating in the Slams or the Open Mics, you can contact Jessica directly at [email protected]. The following regional slams are:

- Fri, Feb 24th: La Tertulia, Mayagüez

- Wed, Mar 1st: El PsychoDeli, Santurce

- Fri, Mar 10th: Cigar Chalet, Aguadilla

- Wed, Apr 5th: El PsychoDeli, Santurce

Additional dates and locations will be added soon.