Interview with Santa Clara County Poet Laureate, Emeritus, David Perez
by Olga Rosales Salinas
Intro One of the most rewarding experiences of my life happened between 2009-2011 and it was called Vetted Word. It was a monthly showcase featuring poets, musicians, juggling acts and everything in between. It was during Vetted Word where I met David and Jen. The creative duo were often featured poets at Vetted Word, and in the process, we became dear friends. While planning the Rosales Sisters’ Scholarship 2021 fundraising effort, I thought of David Perez and one specific poem that has stayed with me for more than ten years now, his poem, Quinceañera. It not only perfectly describes the coming of age event for Latinx youth, but also tells the story of bi-cultural identity that couldn’t be more true.
Read how Perez describes his experience as first-generation and what he hopes for the Latinx youth of today.
About David Perez served as the 2014-2016 Santa Clara County Poet Laureate. He is a recipient of the Arts Council Silicon Valley Fellowship for Literary Art; a repeat guest on the NPR storytelling series, Snap Judgment; and author of the poetry collection, "Love in a Time of Robot Apocalypse" from Write Bloody Publishing. He has taught literature and creative writing at San Jose State University and Ohlone College in Fremont, CA.
Interview More than a poet, you my friend, are an accomplished educator and teacher who has worked at the university level. Although you are not teaching currently, can you tell us a little bit about that experience? Specifically, how would you describe the youth of today? If you do it right, teaching is one of the hardest things imaginable. And doing it right I think begins with understanding that you can never really give knowledge to another person. That’s why so many experts in their given fields fail at being successful teachers. Doing it right means that you make people want knowledge and you empower them with the strategies and resources to teach themselves. That means telling a story about how your subject touches the lives of the people you’re trying to teach and showing those people that the world as we know it, for all the brilliance it’s produced, is still very broken, and it’s partially up to them to fix it. In my experience, the youth want to be part of a solution. But for the 90 minutes that you’re sitting in that room together, students are only as inspired to find the solution as you are. The worst thing you can do as a teacher is present the right answer. The second worst thing you can do is ask, “Are there any questions?” There’s no faster way to make a room dead silent than to ask if there are any questions. What’s much better is asking them the best questions that you can think of--questions you don’t know the answer to. I’ve found that when I do that, students light up. They become invested in the material. They start to see how it can empower them to make a contribution to the world. There’s a misconception about the youth of today, that all they want to do is be on their phones. This seems true mainly because we rarely give them a better option. The better option is showing them—with your own passion—how many important unanswered questions there are, and how the world needs them to take a shot at answering them.
What was the theme of the first poem you ever wrote? Do you still have it? The theme: I love her, but I’m in the friend zone. I don’t have it anymore, which is a favor to the world. What was grade school like for you? What high school did you attend and what was that like? What were your challenges, and do you feel that the LatinX youth of today face those same challenges? Grade school is such a distant memory. I don’t have much more than flashes of imagery: Churros and fish sticks—Garfield and Far Side books—Holding my waistband, so I wouldn’t get pantsed on the playground. High School shows up with better resolution. I started a terrible garage band, did theater, and almost got up the courage to ask Wendy Cowdin to prom. Theater was the best part. It’s where I started to find my tribe—the artists and the misfits. Some of my challenges were academic. My grades were bad and I was unmotivated to do anything about it. I wanted to shoot pool, play loud guitar, and stay out all night at the local theater that played Rocky Horror Picture Show. Socially, I think my challenge was fitting in with the kids around me, who were mostly white. I managed to do this with some success, mainly because I hung out with theater and music nerds, and we genuinely bonded over these interests. I’m not sure if the Latinx youth of today face this same challenge, but I think they probably do. I have a feeling these things don’t change much. We live in a multicultural society, which is a good thing, but there’s a tension (even among the most well-meaning people) that comes from not knowing how to appropriately accept and celebrate our differences. Honestly, I think the Latinx youth of today might have it harder. Our present social climate seems unnecessarily hostile. People aren’t patient with each other. No one is able to think out loud, to try out lots of different ideas, without being afraid of saying the wrong thing. It’s partially because so many conversations happen on social media—for the whole world to see. This turns conversations into performances. We rarely speak to each other one-on-one, and everything we say is remembered forever, available just a click away. I have no idea how you safely experiment with your thinking in this environment, but that experimentation is so important—really listening to the person, not just their words, is so important. Words mean something different when you look into the eyes of the person speaking them. Between 2014-2016 you were named the Poet Laureate of Santa Clara County, CA. Tell us about that experience. You were entrenched in the community in a really unique way - what was your favorite part? In short, I loved it. I was given a tremendous amount of creative freedom to organize the events and programs I thought made sense and to organize them my way. I’m probably most proud of the youth arts education I did, which involved hiring a group of literary artists to teach workshops, mostly in K-8 schools, throughout Santa Clara County. The County Board of Supervisors and the broader artistic community put a huge amount of trust in me, which I think made me work a lot harder than I would have if I had to color within the lines. This is something I think is true of many creative people, we perform better when we’re pulled by our own inclinations rather than being pushed by others.
Most people underestimate the power of their ideas. They write a few lines or pluck out a tune and then think, “What’s the point? It’s all been done before.” And then they give up and match their course and their pace with everyone else around them. Don’t do this.
You and I chatted a little bit about Aptos High and its unique cultural makeup. If you were to address the first-generation or immigrant students at Aptos High now, what would you say?
Most people underestimate the power of their ideas. They write a few lines or pluck out a tune and then think, “What’s the point? It’s all been done before.” And then they give up and match their course and their pace with everyone else around them. Don’t do this. Believe that you’re capable of saying something or doing something that’s both brilliant and new. You might love and respect the people around you, but don’t settle for any one person’s picture of the world. Instead of taking a side, make your own side. Develop your own ideas and don’t take them out of the oven until they’re done baking. Don’t sell people your practice. Whatever your field, fall in love with it. Fall in love with how maddeningly difficult it is to do something great. Grind and keep grinding. Learn grit. Learn to enjoy the struggles that come with fully realizing your ideas. You’ll know it’s working when you’re just doing your own thing and people look at you like you’re magic.
If you could address a potential RSS donor, what would you say?
It’s rare that we put our money into something we can be proud of. You have an opportunity to help change someone’s life—and that’s not a platitude or an exaggeration. Your donation will give someone the chance to become truly exceptional. How often does it happen that someone reaches out and alters the course of someone else’s life for the better? Shouldn’t it happen more?
You can donate today and be part of our efforts! All proceeds will go to benefit students in the central coast of California who are first-generation or immigrants. Post the awards ceremony at Aptos High School on 5/26/21, all money raised will go to the graduating class of 2022.