If These Covers Could Talk #8


In If These Covers Could Talk, poets interview the visual artists whose works grace their book covers. The result is an engaging discussion of process, vision, and projects. This series is a celebration of collaboration—here, we champion the fruitful conversations taking place both on and behind the cover.

This month, poet Dimitri Reyes talked to artist Samuel Miranda about the cover of Papi Pichón (Get Fresh Books Publishing, 2023). 

A Conversation Between Dimitri Reyes and Samuel Miranda

DR: Hermano, thank you— for your support, for your friendship, and for being a model on how to conduct myself as a creator, storyteller, and history preserver. I don’t know if you remember this, but our introduction to one another was during Poets for Puerto Rico DC, one of the many benefit events to support and aid in the recovery efforts after Hurricane Irma and María in 2017. It was at The American Poetry Museum where you are the current chair and curator, that I brought some hand instruments where we started playing together while we waited for the event to start. Heck, we weren’t even the musicians! But this was an example of art being for everyone. We started playing as perfect strangers and finished playing as a unified cohort. I notice your work centers around community, oral histories, and artivism. Can we talk about what influences you and what stories you’re looking to tell?

SM: What influences me most are the interactions I have with people I encounter, the stories they share with me over a meal, a glass of wine. When I first started writing, it was the stories of my students that really pushed my writing, the same students who made me write (because they would not write if I wasn’t) also became the subject matter of my poetry. As I began to develop as a writer I found that influences also came from other artists. I love collaborating. Throughout all of my body of work there is evidence of this, poems about Pepe Gonzalez, a bass player whose stories inhabit a large portion of my body of work, poems that he then brings his music to. This collaboration has improved the way I read poems to an audience, giving me a bass line that exists even when the bass player is absent. It has also improved the poems themselves. I often edit poems after having read them with Pepe.

Music in general has also been an influence. I am the child who grew up listening to Salsa, Hip Hop and Jibaro music, listening to my father sing off key songs over the phone to my grandparents in Puerto Rico, and hymns with guiros, congas, and guitars in church. All of these rhythms and the rhythms of the cities that raised me both as a child and then as an artist are in my writing. My Ricanness and the fact that I did not get exposed to a Puerto Rican writer until college also influenced me. Once exposed, I devoured everything I could find copying the style of the Nuyoricans in the writing I was doing initially. Then I found my own writing community in DC and this sense of needing to find my own voice.

Developing a rhythm with my writing that became my own voice was more important than trying to fall into a school of writing. I am not a Nuyorican writer even though New York and Puerto Rico are ever present in my work; the influence of their history, music, and language find their way in whether I am conscious of it or not. But what DC, the city where my writing was birthed, showed me is that my individual voice needed to be developed because there was so much more to who I was than just that. As another Boricua who came into this world of writing outside of the direct heat of the Nuyorican School of Poetry I wonder what other influences have helped you find the voice you feel is yours?

DR: Ooof, that’s a great question! Especially because I’d be one of the first people to say that when I stepped into the literary scene around 2015, it was the equivalent of me tripping on a crack and finding a $20 bill when I fell. Names like Algarín, De Burgos, Pietri, Perdomo, and Ayala meant nothing to me at the time. I think I caught Def Jam Poetry maybe once on a night where I was staying up too late and flipping through the cable box. I didn’t know they were coming from the Nuyorican or that this was the beginning of the BreakBeat school. And even though it was called Def Poetry Jam, to my 14 year old ears, it just felt like hip-hop to me.

But I was lucky because I had just got accepted to the Rutgers-Newark MFA program and I had the advantage of growing up in a vibrant arts community in Newark, NJ where I was exposed to street art, cyphers, public festivals, protests, and spoken word performances backed by musical accompaniment. As a writer, I was super green and didn’t know what I was doing beyond my written portfolio, so in my graduate classes, I was studying the required courseload while also spending time at local open mics to figure out “how” to art. Observing locals that were students of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe slam scene like Leah “Lyric” Jackson, Rob Hylton, and Porta Rock, local powerhouses like Sean Battle and Mia X, as well as elders in the community that had activist linkages to the Young Lords and the Panthers, I learned that you just had to be present and speak your truth.

These communities that held space allowed me to explore words in a way that told me that artistic disciplines don’t exist in a vacuum and they grow better while working off one another. Which by the way, seems to be your philosophy as someone who also works with visual art. I love the cover you made for Papi Pichón, as the way everything is stitched— including the name and title— looks like it’s about to fly off the page. We’ll talk about the cover in a second, and I have to start by saying that you are a gifted poet and storyteller. And I’m familiar with your weaving, wood carving, and charcoal work, but I’d like you to list every single artistic form you practice. And do you have a particular favorite?

SM: Wow, let’s see. I always tell folks I am a practitioner of 3 art forms, teaching being the first, poetry, and visual art. These are the areas I put time into, where I am always trying to improve my craft and where I am always experimenting and exploring in order to see what else can be done. Within visual work is where I am most diverse. I have explored woodcarving, painting, printmaking, screenprinting, embroidery, mixed media, drawing and most recently, filmmaking. I don’t know that I have a consistent favorite; I focus in on something and just go with it for a while, move on to something else and then revisit what I let go of when the subject matter calls for it. I think that really decides what media I am working in— the subject matter, and sometimes that means multiple media are used to develop an idea fully.

DR: I’m happy that you mentioned that teaching was an artform. It’s truly a craft to talk and connect with others in ways that show empathy and respect. When I was originally going to self publish it, you were one of my first readers when I felt like Papi Pichón was “done” and it was time to think of cover art. I really wanted someone else I trusted to find the essence of who they thought Papi Pichón was as a character, which I knew was a lot to ask. This titular figure was more of an intangible spirit than physical bird though it could often be seen among us, pecking for crusts of bread and stale french fries. This metaphor found it’s characters in the book being from two places at once to the point where this violent binary put it’s subjects in a state of being from neither here nor there. I wanted to make sure the artist could really understand where I was coming from. With that being said, what led you to the cover art we see today?

SM: I think there is something about the pigeon itself that speaks to how I see us as people. The pigeon is everywhere, and in the landscape of a city it can’t be ignored but still is often not seen because it is so present, and often we miss the beauty of it because of how it has been categorized— a pest, flying rat, a disturbance to the peace—  so the colors in its neck and the beauty in those colors are left unnoticed. I chose to embroider the pigeon because it causes the image of the pigeon to push off of the flag which in many ways is what the character of Papi Pichón does for me: it pushes off of the page. And chose to show the pigeon in a side profile because it forces you to look into the eye and he looks back examining you like Papi Pichón examines the complexity of a culture, a community.

DR: Right! The beauty that’s within us! Though beautifully detailed, the pigeon exists in our society as an npc, a background character— but it exists! Always watching and always surviving just like us. In a way, I observe that this is how we also can often treat each other, too. In the hustle and bustle of our day-to-day, everyone that’s not in our personal circle just becomes a part of the background. And to no fault of our own as our capitalist, material, and technological driven society sets us up to navigate space like this, we miss a lot of moments for that personal connection.

SM: One of the things that really drew me to you and your work was this sense I got that community was extremely important. A lot of Papi Pichón, really for me, is about the character identifying who his community is, his role in it and in some cases becoming the one who creates it and establishes the rules. Like Papi Pichón it seems that you are constantly creating spaces for community. I wonder what you would define as your community and what you believe your role in this community is. What do you hope to help establish within this community and what are the rules imposed on this community by outside forces that you feel we need to be breaking?

DR: The community is what really helps get me cookin’ with gas! At least half of these poems in the book were written with the intention of being read aloud, sometimes in random places. There’s a love I have for sharing my work with people and I oftentimes want to help others feel those same feels. Currently, my community is anyone who wants to heal and not harm with their words, people who are pursuing their written/oratory abilities for the sake of their own improvement and interest, and those who want to grow with others in a safe and open space. This means that when I teach workshops or put up a tip video on Instagram or TikTok, I hope to be modeling art the way art was modeled for me when I first started becoming an active participant in the arts.

There’s a lot about the po biz that’s still shrouded in mystery— behind a curtain to the general public or if the information is out there, it’s evidently hard to find when interested and emerging writers don’t know where to look. With my role in the community as a working artist, arts administrator, and content creator, I want to give the public access to the same information I was struggling to get a hold of until I met the right people. Which goes back to the community learning from one another and building each other up.

I couldn’t have seen Papi Pichón to the finish line without watching and learning from folx like you. It can take several people to produce a great book, and it can take a community of friends, associates, and idols to foster a great story. In Papi Pichón, you are mentioned and quoted not just because of your dope artwork, but because you are among other Boricua giants like Raina J. León, Naomi Ayala, Giannina Braschi, Urayoán Noel, Martín Espada, Miguel Piñero, and Pedro Pietri that I turned to in order to better understand Diasporicanness across generations. I’m excited for you to tell us about your newest book, Protection from Erasure and I’m specifically interested in you mentioning the different POV’s illustrated in the collection.

SM: Wow, honored that you would list me alongside poets of that stature. Protection from Erasure is really about coming to terms with how easily our stories can be pushed aside, how our stories can be ignored or minimized and that the only protection we have against that is to tell our stories, the beautiful ones, the ugly ones, the ones we carry in our pockets, on the soles of our feet, in our scars. The different POVs in the book really come from listening, as a teacher I have learned that if you give a person enough space and make them feel comfortable enough they will share their stories and if you listen carefully and open yourself to those stories you will notice that their story is connected to yours. That their experience and yours carry parallels. I tell this story all the time, but when I was younger and I would tell my grandfather to tell me stories about his youth he would always answer with “for what, it does not matter.” And then when he died and we emptied his closets there was a lifetime of stories present in the photos, letters and documents. I think this book, like my others, is really a way to make sure that people see themselves and their stories and they never get to say to anyone who asks them to tell their story, “for what, it does not matter.”

DR: So let’s talk about the front matter of your book. What’s the story behind Protection from Erasure?

SM: The cover as with all the covers of my previous books uses my own work. I picked this piece because it is a self portrait of me as a 10 year old. It is a screen printed image that is then invaded by white paint. As a kid even through high school I often felt invisible whether through self erasure because of my quiet nature and the feeling that that was the best way to protect myself or erasure by others who could just walk by a quiet kid and not see him because he did not call attention to himself and in New York City anonymity was completely possible. You could disappear fully into the crowd if you were quiet enough. Both of these erasures were ones I wish I had been protected from, erasures that while they seemed to offer protection in the long run, did more harm than good. So it seemed fitting that this image of ten year old me should represent a work titled Protection from Erasure.

DR: Damn, that idea of erasure as a child really hits home. For me, growing up overweight and taller than a lot of my peers in middle school, I too had those feelings of invisibility in the way that I couldn’t be seen past my “bigness.” And I follow that thread slightly in the book, although not for long, as I started to develop more confidence and acceptance of myself as a teenager. But that didn’t mean I stopped participating in the act of erasure, it simply evolved and caused me to be simplified in different ways: a hulking and brutish threat vis a vis being husky. Many of these identifiers for the sake of protection continued into my mid to late 20’s until I finally broke my own 4th wall and realized I was beyond these identifiers of big and small, tough and weak. Beyond words and phrases. It’s easy to fall into “archetypes” within our work as well. When we’re categorized as a Latinx/Latine writer, what do you see yourself adding to American Letters, or better yet, Puerto Rican letters specifically?

SM: I wonder about the ways we are able to find an acceptance of self and I am glad you found your way to it. Not all of us do. There is this sense I think that in order to find acceptance of self acceptance by others is necessary. Which really translates into the literary and art world, and as you mentioned, oftentimes we need to fall into these archetypes because of that and accept these spaces as the ones we belong in.

And I think that’s why truthfully, what I am adding to American letters or even Puerto Rican letters, is not something I think about. I write ‘cause I feel the stories I hear, and the issues I experience or witness others experience are important to talk about and hope that as others read them conversation will spark. I hope that I am telling those stories honestly and addressing those issues ethically. But the purpose goes back to highlighting the idea that everybody has an important story to tell. When I write I hope that the people who influenced that particular piece of writing feel like they were heard and seen, that they feel that I saw the importance in their story. That’s the goal. Do I hope people read the work? Yes. But the goal is not legacy or adding to an existing canon.

DR: Sami, thanks so much for spending this time with me, Papa. And I appreciate getting to know a bit more about your work, philosophies, and how you came to art. I’m looking forward to catching up with you in DC some time in the near future!


Samuel “Sami” Miranda grew up in the South Bronx and resides in Washington, DC. He is a visual artist, poet, and teacher. He is the author of Protection from Erasure, published by Jaded Ibis Press, Departure, a chapbook published by Central Square Press, and We Is, published by Zozobra Publishing. He is currently working on collaborative projects with musicians, visual artists and filmmakers. Samuel’s artwork has been exhibited internationally in Puerto Rico and Madrid, as well as New York and Washington, DC. Most recently, Samuel’s artwork has been included in the Smithsonian’s new Molina Family Latino Gallery inaugural exhibition ¡Presente!. Films he co-directed and co-produced, a documentary short “Spanish Joe Remembers” and “Hiding Place” a poetry short have been included in festivals in Washington, DC, Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Berlin, Germany. 

Dimitri Reyes