Art Is: Michael Torres

Michael Torres was born and brought up in Pomona, California where he spent his adolescence as a graffiti artist. His first collection, An Incomplete List of Names, won the National Poetry Series and will be published in 2020 by Beacon Press. Torres teaches at Minnesota State University-Mankato, and through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. Visit him at:

AIRED: December 10, 2020 | 0:04:28

(chill hip hop music)

- I remember when I first started writing poetry seriously.

And I would tell my friends

that this is what I'm going to school for.

For a while, they made fun of me for it.

And I think because that's not a thing

anyone does where I come from.

Every time I sit down to write poetry,

I think it asks me to look at myself

and decisions I've made

and stand in the middle of it all.

I think poetry demands the writer to be uncertain

and to be okay and comfortable with uncertainty.

My name is Michael Torres and I'm a poet.

(gentle piano music)

- "All-American Mexican."

"All I wanted was a Cadillac on Chrome,

real diamonds in my ears,

and someone to call my name through a crowd.

Instead, me and the homies drove to the mall

in my hatchback, rocking dog tags with Tupac on 'em,

we lived for his West Side fingers.

We stopped at Nothing But Silver,

a store where I sifted through glinting trays

of princess cut earrings.

No one asked if we needed help,

but everyone stared a long time.

No one called our names, so we took new ones.

Swallowed them whole and they grew inside us.

Inside the food court bathrooms,

our new names bloom black from Magnum markers.

Inside stalls, I practiced the R, the E,

the M, the E, the K.

Our names too real for us to contain.

We left, and I was glad my hatchback's bubbled up

window tint distorted our faces.

Everything is always up for interpretation."

I grew up in Southern California, Pomona, California.

My sister introduced me to literature really early on.

And she would try to have me read Shakespeare

when I was in first grade or something like that.

I kept that with me, but as I got older,

I wanted to do more visual art.

And so I started doing graffiti.

High school wasn't a place where I felt

like I was ever being heard.

And so me and my friends,

we would go out and write our names

and kind of put what we wanted to say out there

on the walls, on the streets.

And around the time I was turning 18

and got caught doing graffiti,

I sort of transitioned almost naturally

into poetry for some reason.

I think I have certain obsessions,

whether that's identity or masculinity,

always asking similar questions

about those obsessions in my poetry.

"I am who I've always been,

a boy seeking an orbit to align with.

One day, I'm gonna get 'poet' tatted on my chest.

Only instead of the O, I want a window

through which you can see my childhood backyard,

way before I became something like a souvenir.

I might make my artist ink at the tire swing.

He says the worst it'll hurt

depends on where I wanna plant the trees."

These are some photos from, probably when I was 16.

Some of them are of graduation with me and my friends.

Other ones are just us hanging out.

I think I'm really concerned with how I'm remembered

and how my friends are remembered.

Going through high school, no one, principals,

vice principals, proctors, teachers,

some of them really didn't see a future for us.

Or one in college or one in the arts or anything like that.

And so from then on, it was sort of this,

I'm proud to have this responsibility

to kind of tell our story in a way of,

you know, how we lived.

It's something really simple to me,

but it was something we didn't see in high school,

in anything we read.

When I think of how it was doing graffiti,

we used to, you know, paint our names on the wall

and then it would get erased.

And we would come back and paint our names again,

over and over.

And so that you started seeing the city

would keep covering it and covering it.

But there was just like, the wall had layers of paint,

and it was thick and you can kind of peel it off

if you chipped away at it.

But it was still like there.

And so I think of the literary community like that,

like I'm joining this whole

layers and layers of names over each other.

And just like, it means something, right?

It stands out there, even against like eraser.

We just kind of keep coming.

(gentle music)


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