Vermont Arts Council

Embody the Spirit: An Interview with Poetry Out Loud National Finalist Irén Hangen Vázquez

Irén Hangen Vázquez is a senior at Burr and Burton Academy and the winner of this year’s Vermont Poetry Out Loud poetry recitation contest. She went on to compete at the national finals on May 27 against eight other competitors for the top prize of $20,000. While Irén did not place in the national finals, her achievement is enormous.

Each year, thousands of Vermont students select at least one poem to recite in their classrooms or in their school auditorium. Through a series of competitions, typically ten students recite three poems at the state’s final competition.

As the coordinator of Vermont Poetry Out Loud, it is always amazing to hear a new set of young voices bring poems to the stage, and this year to the virtual stage. As they progress through the competition hierarchy, they will have created a portfolio of recitations—all of which are personally relevant. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Irén’s slate of recitations at least four times, and I’m struck by the significance and her presentation of her opening selection, “Caminitos,” by Carmen Tafolla. The poem delicately explores a metaphor where the intersections of her thought, surrounding landscape, heritage, and time form her personal path or caminito. Tafolla writes that each pathway is made with a careful, but also whimsical touch:

“cada uno hecho así,
        y with a careful
                capricho touch,

I appreciate the opportunity for expression that Poetry Out Loud brings, and I appreciate when students so eloquently make the most of that opportunity. When listening to Irén’s recitations, you understand that she is sharing with us images of her own caminito, a path shaped by her artistry, her strong sense of self, and her connection to her family, her heritage, and the physical world that surrounds her.

Irén spoke with Content Manger Desmond Peeples over Zoom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Troy Hickman, Education Program Manager and Vermont Poetry Out Loud Coordinator

Desmond Peeples: What do you love about poetry?

Irén Hangen Vázquez: Well, I’m a musician. I guess I should start there. I’m a classical cellist, and I find that poetry is like music in words. The same skills are needed to perform it. The same skills are needed to write it as composing music. It’s that connection that I think is really special to me. I love reading and, of course, I love music—I’m going to be studying music in college.

Do you also write poetry?

I do. Not very much, but I actually have some in the literary magazine that I edit at school, Between Ranges, the 2021 edition. So, I do write a little bit, but the most connection that I have with poetry is recitation through POL.

So you’re a classical cellist, and you’re going to study music at college. How did your interest in music develop?

I’m 16 now, and I started playing when I was five, so that was 11 years ago. My parents are both musicians. There’s a long story about how I decided the cello was my instrument, but it was basically love at first sight, and I’ve never looked back. Cello is really the only instrument that I play; a little bit of piano, but that’s more my dad. He’s a Latin jazz pianist. And in the fall, I will be going to the Cleveland Institute of Music for my BMus and also to Case Western Reserve University for a BA in physics at the same time.

You’re going to pursue a dual degree? Can you tell me a bit more about your interest in science?

A dual degree, oh gosh, yes. Physics is just cool, just super cool. I’m interested in acoustic physics in part, of course—music is based on physics, music is physics. That’s something that I just find unbelievably incredible and super interesting. I’d love to explore that, and also astrophysics and cosmology and that sort of thing—not cosmetology, cosmology. I always feel the need to clarify that, because I’m not interested in cosmetology at all, but black holes and quantum mechanics are fantastic.

I did read a lot of physics books this year, of course, Stephen Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time, and The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav and a lot of other interesting things. I’m interested in the big picture, but also the small things in the big picture. The quantum particles of the universe. I like the balance of physics and music because music feels very grounding, it’s very emotional. Physics is a little bit more mathy, more analytical, and I find that I need both to have a healthy, balance.

Who are some of your creative influences?

On the music side, Jacqueline du Pré is a great inspiration to me. She was a very famous cellist, and a lot of famous cellists are men. Usually, when people think of cello, they think of Yo-Yo Ma or Pablo Casals or Rostropovich or Mischa Maisky, or all of these men. So Jacqueline du Pré is such an icon and important figure for me. She’s so passionate. She just exudes music, and she has a very tragic life story, but recordings of her are so charged with energy—she’s just amazing.

Is there a piece of hers that you would recommend someone start with?

Yes. Jacqueline du Pré’s recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto is the definitive recording. And I’m fine going on record as saying that, because I think most people would agree with me. The Elgar Cello Concerto is her concerto, and she just owns it. And I think the recording of her is with her husband, Daniel Barenboim, who is a conductor and pianist. He’s still alive. It’s a fantastic, fantastic recording.

Watch Irén’s recitation of “[‘Often rebuked, yet always back returning’]” by Emily Brontë.

How did you choose the poems that you’ve recited for the Poetry Out Loud competition?

The way poem selection works is, you recite three poems and they’re the same all throughout the competition. And you have meet two criteria. One criteria is a pre-20th century poem, and another one is a poem of 25 lines or less, and those can be the same poem. For me, Emily Brontë’s “[‘Often rebuked, yet always back returning’]” was my pre-20th century and my under 25 lines. The way I picked my two other poems—and this has been my formula for all three years I’ve competed—starts with the fact that I am Latina. I’m Puerto Rican, and English is my second language. Spanish is my first. So, it’s really important to me to choose a poem that’s bilingual or by a Latino author. This year, two of my poems were by Latino authors, and one of them was more bilingual than the other one.

So, “Caminitos” by Carmen Tafolla was my very bilingual poem. And “Two Guitars” by Victor Hernandez Cruz. Victor Hernandez Cruz is Puerto Rican like me, so I felt a connection there. It’s really important to me to pick poems through which I can share a part of myself. My identity as a Latina woman is really important to me, and to be able to share that through my poetry, I think, is just critical. So, those are those two poems. And then the Bronte poem, I was looking for a pre-20th century one, and I had read Wuthering Heights, and I was like, “Oh, I know the Brontës.” And that one spoke to me. I feel that it has some feminist undertones, which I vibed with, and sometimes you just kind of click with a poem.

Do you have any tips or anything for other Vermonters who want to end up at the national finals?

I got into Poetry out Loud because of my music performance. Something that had challenged me a lot in the past—which I’m working on now, still, always—is that performance aspect and being calm on stage, but still emoting. So, in connection with that, I would say to feel free to let yourself feel very deeply when you’re reciting to embody the spirit of the poem within yourself.

Going along with that, I had a really wonderful coaching session with [teaching artist] Morgan Irons after I won at the state level, before semi-finals, and she told me a really great piece of advice. So, I can’t take credit for this advice, but I thought it was really, really helpful—recite your poem like it’s the first time you’re saying it. You have to have your poems memorized, of course, but don’t say them like they’re just by rote memory. They have to be fresh, and it has to feel like you’re discovering the poem for the first time. That gives it that special touch.

You said both of your parents are musicians. What was it like growing up in a house of musicians?

Well, very music-filled. So, my parents met in a salsa band in college. And my mom played small Latin percussion and, I think, also sang a little bit too. She’s less involved with music now. She’s our roadie, so she takes the amps for my dad’s gigs and she helps me. She’ll lug my cello around.

I think one of the greatest things of being in a musician-filled household is the support. Because when I decided that I wanted to go to conservatory when I was 12 or 13, my parents were 100% behind me. And that was something that my dad didn’t have when he went to conservatory. To have that support with me is really incredible. And my dad is my accompanist as well. He picked up classical again to accompany me on all my sonatas and my concertos and all of that. The support is just so important.

How else do you honor your heritage through your artwork? Do you try to do the same through your music?

Through my music, that’s a big thing. I am a four-time alum, soon to be five-time alum, which feels so crazy to say, of the Sphinx Performance Academy, which is a summer music camp for young Black and Latino musicians. It’s usually chamber; these past two years, of course, have been really difficult with COVID, so, it’s been more solo focused. The Sphinx Organization, which is dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts, has been so incredible to work with, just so, so, so fantastic. Having mentors of color that are in the classical music world has been particularly important. My teacher Karlos Rodriguez is a member of a quite well-known quartet, the Catalyst Quartet. I’ve had a chamber coach, Jessie Montgomery, who is now quite a famous up-and-coming composer.

Being able to be involved in diversifying classical music through that organization has been amazing, because I don’t see people like me in the big orchestras. The Boston Symphony Orchestra very much does not look like me. So, being able to actually have a voice as a Latina musician and act on change is really important to me. Through my music, it’s been important to me to make sure that I have a space, and that the generation that comes after me also has a space in this world that’s been closed off to us for a long time.

The Sphinx Organization and Sphinx Performance Academies are out-of-state. When you’re at home in Vermont, which like the classical music world is notoriously un-diverse, how do you find the kind of support and community you need?

Quite honestly, I have had to make those spaces. I’ve been really involved in social justice work for the past three years at my school and in the community, working on racial justice stuff at Burr and Burton specifically. I co-founded the Racial Justice Alliance in my second year. I currently am a member of the Burr and Burton DEIJ [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice] working group, which is composed of faculty, staff, and students. I’ve worked with community members on events before around racial and social justice.

I guess I’ve found support in working towards having a more inclusive and diverse space, rather than having those spaces already available. But I think that’s been a really fantastic way to find myself, because through the Sphinx Organization, we’re working on creating those spaces within a specific community. And in my other work, it’s more for a general community. I’m getting both the Latina classical me and then the general, “let’s do the equal rights thing for everyone all the time, period” me. It’s definitely never easy anywhere. Working with the community in that way for the past couple of years has been fantastic.

You’re about to leave Vermont to attend college in Ohio. Having done this work to create community for other Vermonters of color, what do progress do you hope will happen here while you are away? What do you hope to see when you return?

That’s a great question. It’s really difficult, because I’m not sure how fast communities are ready to move. This is work that never ends. This is work that never stops. Maybe the best answer would be that I’d like to see a continuance of the work that’s already being done, and I’d like to see people not giving up. This work is very draining, and it can be frustrating. It can be difficult, but we can’t let that uncomfortableness of the conversations that need to happen stop us from having them. I guess, to put it more simply, I would love for these communities to keep on embracing discomfort, keep on embracing difficult conversations, accepting change and working together to make that change truly effective.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Participating in the Sphinx Performance Academy and having that community was so important to my personal development as a musician, as a person, as a young Latino woman. I gained confidence from being in a space with other people like me, who were also incredibly invested in classical music—which is seen as such an elitist institution, and so reserved for a certain type of person—and who were also very strong academic students as well, people who had lots of different interests. That gave me the confidence to really embrace all of the parts of me. And I think that that confidence then translated into Poetry out Loud in terms of being able to take that risk.

And I think something important for kids in Vermont to know is that, at the risk of offending my dear little state, you can go outside of Vermont. The Sphinx Organization is based in Detroit, and the sessions that I went to were actually where I’ll be attending college, at the Cleveland Institute of Music. So, a lot of my closest friends do not live in Vermont. They live in the Midwest, or I have a friend who lives in Virginia and another one that lives in New Jersey, and a friend who lives in Michigan. You can find your community anywhere, and Poetry out Loud is another way to find your community with people from all 50 States and five territories to boot.