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Green Leaves

Unpacking ‘Viciously Poetic’ with Raf Gonzalez

In this interview, we learn more about Raf Gonzales and the journey behind his debut collection, Viciously Poetic.

Centre for Stories first met Raf Gonzalez when he attended several of our workshops and seminars and applied as a participant of our Inclusion Matters fellowship. In 2021, Raf applied for our Writing Change, Writing Inclusion hot desk fellowship, trying his hand at poetry between bouts of writer’s block on larger projects. Raf’s work has been published in Los Angeles Review of Books, Journal, DADAA, and Different Lens. His work also appears in Centre for Stories’ anthologies Under the Paving Stones, the Beach and To Hold the Clouds. Raf provides support at DADAA Fremantle, delivering writing workshops to marginalized communities.

Centre for Stories (CFS): Can you tell us how Viciously Poetic came to be?

Raf Gonzalez (RG): At the end of 2020 and through 2021, I participated in the Writing Change, Writing Inclusion fellowship, so I got to spend some time at Centre for Stories writing up some content and letting my creativity flow. When I was stuck on some bigger pieces thanks to some writer’s block, I tried my hand at poetry in between projects. What was very liberating for me was that I didn’t have to be limited to just classic rhyming poems, even spoken word gave me plenty to work on. A few poems were created during the fellowship and some others were made during the writing workshops I currently run at DADAA. As for the title, I chose Viciously Poetic because I felt the need to have a brand, but also to make it clear that the collection of poems would bare my own fangs – my twisted sense of humour – at certain frustrations I, and anyone who’s ever gone through the same problems, have experienced.

CFS: Who did you celebrate with when you received the fantastic news about your poems being published?

Raf is looking directly into the camera smiling with his arms crossed in front of him.

RG: Immediately, I celebrated with my family. They’ve been my biggest supporters for as long as I can remember. I also celebrated with my colleagues at DADAA. I still remember the moment that Robert Wood offered me the opportunity to get some of my work published, that I needed to take a chance. So, months later when I received the email from Caroline that my manuscript had been successfully submitted for publication, I held my tongue and kept it a surprise until my family were all together so I could make the announcement.

CFS: Publishing a poetry collection can be a daunting and complex process. What was it like working with your editor throughout this project? 

RG: J Saw, my editor, was very patient with me. I would send updated documents every few weeks with new entries. It was Robert that originally gave me the prompt of an estimated 52 poems. We ended up with 64. J and I came up with the layout together, and J suggested that we divide the collection into 8 parts with 8 poems each. I am no stranger to back and forth editing, so it was a long process that I was good at dealing with. I think we ended up doing several proofreads before the final submission. But more importantly, to make sure that my poems were still my own words and not the autocorrect.

CFS: This book sits within a series of poetry collections within the Green Leaves/Red River project in collaboration with Red River Press in Delhi. What is something cool/fun/challenging that has come up during this process?

RG: The fun and cool part of the process was when J collated the poems into a narrative for readers to follow on a journey. The first section explores the extremes of unemployment, and mixed in were my struggles with being overworked in a later section. A few are based on nostalgia and my personal interest in traditional folklore. Though overall it is a very eclectic set of poems.

The only challenging part of the process was to still have it sound like my own voice and for my words to still have a soul. Though I did also have to restrain myself when it came to the design of the book cover. Since I have a diploma in Graphic Design, I felt a need to make a prototype cover for the book. But J had to remind me of my contract, so I compromised when we put together a design brief for the official graphic designer to work with.

CFS: Viciously Poetic is your debut poetry collection (one we can’t help but think will be the first of many). What has met your expectations and what has been awkward or unexpected?

RG: Going in, I don’t think I had many expectations. I was just going on this journey. I’m usually more assertive with my other projects. But overall, I feel I met those goals of having my poems reflect who I am and proving that I write about whatever I can. Things that make me mad, bring me joy or just to make something unique and entertaining. Circling back to the previous question, one unexpected thing did occur. When the draft layout was shown to me and J, I was surprised that the designer went ahead and used one of my paintings as the book cover. I really felt honoured, and I was incredibly glad it happened. So, I can’t wait for my readers to see what’s in store.

CFS: Is there a poem from this collection you’d like to share with our readers?

RG: There are so many to choose from. “Waiting for the Freo Doctor” was my first ever spoken word poem. “Tides” is a special poem that makes you feel the desire to dive into its waters of quiet ambience. “Whisper” is a poem that forces you to whisper, whereas “Scatterbrain” is a poem about me embracing my inner oddball persona.

But my most crucial poem for readers to take note of is “A Painful Reminder.” It’s a poem I wrote during my recovery from a knee injury back in 2021. I wrote it to originally tell the story of what happened, as I was going through some minor PTSD after surgery and trying to learn how to walk again. The poem acted as a cathartic remedy for my own well-being, in that whenever anyone asked me the dreaded what happened, I could direct them to this poem, and avoid what I didn’t want to mentally revisit.

Interestingly, the version J chose wasn’t my revised version. He explained that this poem would give readers a feeling of experience the trauma through my words. And I actually agreed with him on this. Plus, it’s followed by a poem about a strange encounter I had after surgery with an interesting character I called “The Bubblegum Nurse.” But I will say that all the poems featured in Viciously Poetic are enjoyable for everyone.

A Painful Reminder

Where do I begin?
Two days before Halloween, I was on my way to work a graveyard shift. I was pacing down those damn stairs into the carpark like clockwork. But this one particular night will change everything.

How did it happen?
I was one step away on the halfway platform.
Then I slipped, I fell backwards, my backpack cushioned my spine. But I could still see my left leg bend and pop in another direction.

How did it feel?
I remember trying to get up, but something was wrong.
All I felt was such intense sheer agony, sharp as a knife, jabbed on the left knee.
But at the same time, I couldn’t feel nor move my leg, say only for wriggling my toes.

What happened next?
Some patrons of the place I was going to work, helped me down the steps. These Samaritans stayed until the medics arrived and looked after me.
A whiff of the green whistle dulled my senses, yet I still resisted crying.

What happened after?
After hours of waiting, the ambulance came and took me to the hospital.
After hours of tests, x-rays and chaotic running around, I finally got some rest. When my parents visited me, I dropped my guard and tears flowed down my face.

How did you feel after the surgery?
After reuniting with a high school classmate and breathing in the oxygen.
I remember waking abruptly, groaning as the pain deepened. Driving me crazy.
I spoke through my snores, and I spoke to a rainbow-haired nurse who wasn’t there.

How did the physio help?
After wasting a few days, I relied on a walking frame to get around.
I was discharged with equipment to help, as recovering will take a long time. For that moment, all that mattered was that I was going home.

Did you go home to the flat?
I was advised by the nurses and my anxieties that I was safer recovering at home. Home where my parents were, home where I grew up, home where I wasn’t alone. The days had been slow, but the love and support helped me.

How have you been in your recovery?
It has been slow and painful at times. Not being able to do things by myself sucked.
I contemplated my future career by the hairs of my newly grown beard.
Slowly my leg was getting better, the swelling dropped as quickly as the movies I have missed out.

What happened once the brace finally came off?
After 2 months of recovery, I’ve finally was free of the brace in time for Christmas.
Even if I can walk and shower like normal. It will take time for me to run, squat and dance again. All that I am left with is a vertical scar on my left knee, a painful reminder of what I went through.

About Raf

Raf Gonzalez is a Latino multi-disciplinary artist; born and raised in Perth, he comes from a family of migrants who moved from El Salvador to Western Australia during the Salvadoran Civil War. Raf is a proud Aspie whose work often highlights marginalized diverse identities, raising them from supporting character to protagonist, and giving them the agency they often aren’t afforded.

Praise for Viciously Poetic

Raf Gonzalez’s evocation of pop culture, art, folklore, and techno nostalgia will connect with readers who long for an alternative to the cool artificiality of the modern world. With a tone shifting between patience, wryness, and frustration, Raf ’s writing is unselfconscious and his voice sincere: his poetry is a hand reaching out.

– Brooke Dunnell (author of The Glass House)

Green Leaves / Red River is an international publication project by Centre for Stories in partnership with Red River Press based in Delhi.

The project supports eight poets from CALD backgrounds to publish a full manuscript of poetry. The project also provides two editorial fellowships to emerging editors from CALD backgrounds. Editorial Fellows work with the writers to develop a manuscript of high literary standard. The collections will be published over two years and sold individually as part of a series.

This project is possible with funding from the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries.

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