“Poetry for me is a space,” Urayoán Noel said. “It doesn’t have to be quiet. Poetry can be noisy; it can be messy; it can be performance.” 

Noel, a Puerto Rican poet, translator and performer will present at the 2023 S.A. Yoder Memorial Lecture, “Adjacent Islands: A Geopoetics of Translation” on Feb. 9 at 7 p.m. in Umble Center. 

Noel was invited to speak in the lecture series held annually to honor Dr. Samuel A. Yoder, an English professor at Goshen College from 1930-70.

Every year, the GC English department seeks to bring nationally and internationally renowned writers and thinkers to campus whose work is committed to intercultural exchange. 

Noel went to Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras for his undergraduate and then attended Stanford University and New York University, where he currently teaches.

He is also the author of many books, including “In Visible Moment: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam,” the first book-length study of Nuyorican (portmanteau of the terms “New York” and “Puerto Rican”) poetry. Noel also recently published a poetry book, “Transversal,” along with a translation of “adjacent islands” by Nicole Cecilia Delgado, which he will discuss at the lecture. 

Noel credits several inspirations, largely from one of his mentors, Pedro Pietri, who was a Nuyorican poet, playwright and one of the co-founders of the Nuyorican Movement. 

After seeing Pietri perform at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Noel was inspired by his work: “It showed me a way to think about the limits of the page. What could poetry be like off the page in a way that felt super experimental, super cutting edge but also very much rooted in expressive cultures and performance traditions?”

Noel continued, “We are Puerto Rican. We’ve been improvising our own poetry and finding a way for centuries.” 

Peter Miller, associate professor of English, was a grad student at the University of Virginia when he first met Noel.

“Noel visited campus for a conference and wowed us all with his creative blend of academic scholarship and original poetry,” Miller said. “[It is] a hybrid approach that he uses to explore how Latinx identity intersects with issues of geography, gender, language and digital media.” 

Miller added that Noel is an “excellent fit for this year’s Yoder lecture.”

“[I will] share a little about the intersections of those many practices in my work,” Noel said, as a poet, translator and performer. 

During the lecture, there will also be a discussion and multiple modes of expression showcased, such as performance readings. 

Noel thinks of poetry as less of a genre with “rarefied texts with cultural capital and more of whatever that relationship that we have to language, which is less mediated by the kind of instrumentalizing demands of productivity of immediate legibility and engagement.

“I think in my own practice,” Noel continued, “I’ve explored that [by translating] ability through performance, and in my work over the last decade through improvisation.” 

Noel exemplifies this idea through his improvisation poetry vlog, “WOKITOKITEKI,” where poems are generated spontaneously by speaking into a smartphone.

As a person with epilepsy, he explained that there is a freedom this medium provides him: “There’s a kind of disability poetics aspect of that … the sense that driving has always been complicated for me. So I’ve kind of gotten used to whatever neurodivergent linguistic universes emerge right out of my having to walk the unwalkable.

“I live in this both/and not this either/or,” he added. “I want my work to reflect that. More and more my private practice of self translation became eccentric, performative.” 

In terms of his translation work, he is most interested in “non-equivalent self translations,” noting, “Those of us who live between languages probably have the common sense that something is translatable – there’s a meaning or a resonance that just doesn’t render.”

“There’s the idea that part of the knowledge of poetry is unconscious poetry,” Noel added. “[It] can also be a secret language, a language of desire, a language of our fears, a language of dreams. And ultimately, transformation happens.”