Poems, Progress, and Passion Projects: Ren Koppel Torres Explores Identity and Advocacy Through Writing
Austin’s creative scene is characterized by capturing authentic voices and artists, depicting a landscape dotted with luminary creatives. Despite this formed and fully enriched art scene, poetry is still largely undervalued in comparison to other prominent art forms, especially with the myriad of musical styles threaded throughout the city’s culture. Poetry’s relatively undermined status as an art form is being energetically drawn to the forefront by a new generation of artists, led by the inaugural Austin Youth Poet Laureate cohort, formed by five finalists and the laureate.
Ren Koppel Torres, a 17-year-old at Westlake High School, is one of the selected finalists, and despite this astounding accolade and accomplishment, Torres is not new to the writing scene. He founded and crafted the literary magazine, Alebrijes Review, to develop a forum dedicated to embracing and featuring Latinx voices. He began the publication during the pandemic and currently serves as Editor-in-Chief, having spearheaded two issues featuring a plethora of creatives. There are currently six staff writers, with Torres seeking more artists to join the team as he expands the site. The magazine showcases not only poetry, but visual art, music, and short fiction works.
Alongside his publication, he dedicated his younger teen years to novel writing, particularly fantasy fiction. Torres ventured into the world of literary magazines after exploring various literary magazines and soon began to analyze and study the process of submitting and publishing work while consuming works from a range of smaller literary magazines.
“I felt like a lot of [literary magazines] were able to showcase more unconventional work or work with a specific focus, [while] larger magazines had to appeal to a greater audience to take a middle ground and find something that appeals to everybody and be a more mainstream,” Torres said. “A lot of these magazines have very small audiences, and a lot of them are passion projects run by people who are just excited about the work and not necessarily in it to make money.”
The highly connected and supportive nature of the literary magazine community also began to entrance Torres, and seeing a friend’s experience with starting a literary magazine enticed Torres even more.
“I love being in [a] community with other writers because I feel like writing is seen as a very solitary thing and a lot of times it sort of is, because you’ve got [to] be with your thoughts and your pen and paper, computer, [or whatever] you write on,” Torres said. “It’s also really important to find ways to engage with your community through your writing, because at least for me, [it] reminds me [of] why I am doing this, which is because I love this and because it reminds me that other people are as excited about my work as I am excited about their work.”
Torres saw the gaping absence of Latinx media and sought to curate and demarcate a space where those voices were amplified and given the platform they so critically deserve. Torres credits this disparity not due to a lack of powerful creatives belonging to minority groups, but an emphasis on a narrative of what is deemed valuable. That boils down to the mindset and experiences of who is evaluating the art and categorizing if it is worthy of publication. Torres sees the lack of Latinx voices as a jarring reminder that popular media is still in the heavily-guarded reins of majority groups, primarily white, male editors, and a disregard for the intricate range of work and identity that exists within immigrant and minority communities.
“When you have an editor that has [a] somewhat similar experience as you, there [are] some cultural elements that someone who doesn’t come from the same background or doesn’t come from a marginalized background might miss, not understand, or not be able to connect with in the same way,” Torres said. “It kind of puts underrepresented writers at a disadvantage inherently. And that’s just implicit bias. Assuming that they’re not going to be influenced by if someone has an ethnic name or something.”
Torres was inspired by the art figurines heavily prominent in the Mexican art scene, Alebrijes, which were crafted as a concept by Oaxacan artist Pedro Linares after a fever dream bathed the artist’s thoughts, and thus prompted him to create mystical creatures with vivid hues out of cartonería. This spurred a cultural phenomenon, effectively defining a folk art movement. His art remains an enduring classic and a tremendous inspiration to older and younger generations alike.
“I remember when I was younger and I would cross the border with my grandparents whenever I’d go visit them, and there would be vendors everywhere selling art, and a lot of them were little versions of alebrijes that would bob their heads back and forth. I remember getting those and loving those as a kid,” Torres said. “I chose to name it the Alebrijes Review because those creatures have a lot of significance within Latino art history but also, I feel like they are very creative, whimsical, and joyful. They are also like a hybrid, so I wanted that to represent our magazine because I wanted to create art that represents us and celebrates our culture but also doesn’t highlight any one specific experience and represents that we all have intersecting identities that shape us.”
I wanted to create art that represents us and celebrates our culture but also doesn’t highlight any one specific experience and represents that we all have intersecting identities that shape us.
Torres’ heritage and identity has played a pivotal role in his desire to write, which has, in many ways, fostered his voice, with his culture “[coloring] the way” he views the world. The idea of tolerance and acceptance are sewn into all of his work, whether or not it specifically pertains to heritage. Fantasy is also still an integral part of his character as a writer, and the skills he acquired in relation to the field of fantasy have been incorporated in some of his poems as well.
“I think even in the poems that aren’t necessarily about heritage, my heritage is present anyway just in the way that I do things,” Torres said. “But, I do think it’s important for me personally to write poems about that because it can be a form of advocacy and a call-to-action for the reader. For example, I have a lot of poems calling for more acceptance of immigrants in general. There’s just a lot of bias in our world today against both Jews and Latinos. So [it’s about] having poems that try to humanize our experiences.”
“My heritage is a big inspiration because it’s both a way for me to reflect on my identity and my experiences and a way to kind of immortalize the stories that I have been hearing about, my family history, and reflect on the way that affects the way that I see the world,” Torres said.“There are two lenses of writing about heritage; one is writing with having other people of your heritage and of your experience in mind and not necessarily having to explain or define things that other people of that experience would probably understand. And there’s also writing towards a more general audience, and oftentimes those are the poems that have sort of a call-to-action to issue the hatred or prejudices in our society against Jews or against Mexicans or Latinos or immigrants. It’s an important thing to me.”
As his journey with poetry progresses, Torres seeks to expand the Alebrijes Review while simultaneously writing and submitting new poems in various literary magazines, delving into new concepts and realms of writing, with his interest drawn to visual poetry. He believes poetry is multifaceted and defies a singular definition. A few changes he is hoping to implement for the publication is exploring a print version and collaborating with local bookstores, possibly generating revenue to pay staff writers and contributors or to donate the money to a cause.
“One thing that I wanted to make sure with the Alebrijes Review is that we are not limiting the kinds of topics that people can write about or make art about. I feel like often, even [the] spaces that try to consciously include minority groups a lot of times have them as the role of an educator,” Torres said. “I wanted to make sure that we don’t pigeonhole Latino writers or any marginalized writers in general into only writing about racism or only writing about oppression or the hardships that come with being in a marginalized group. Because prejudice is always going to influence our lives and be present in our lives, but it’s never going to define us, and it’s never going to encompass all of our experiences. It’s just a small part of who we are, and only focusing on that does more harm than good. There always has to be a diversity of art because that’s the whole point of art: to speak to the human experience, [which] will never be black and white.”
Prejudice is always going to influence our lives and be present in our lives, but it’s never going to define us, and it’s never going to encompass all of our experiences.
Writing, in its many genres and pursuits, has always been embedded into Torres’ life. Captivated by the intricate worlds of fantasy books, Torres set out to craft a novel, and spent seven joyous, yet taxing years to see it published. That process was tremendously educational for Torres, and as he ventured into poetry endeavors more seriously throughout the pandemic, he consumed more “unconventional, surreal, and abstract” works. He loved the lack of constricting rules or guidelines, and poetry promised sanctuary in the midst of growing pains and the difficult time characteristic of the pandemic. His initial experience with poetry, however, came when he took part in a Badgerdog Creative Writing Camp at the age of seven and shared his poetry in a slam-like setting. Aside from that experience, his first official poetry reading was at the Austin Youth Poet Laureate ceremony, and he’s ecstatic for the community the cohort will provide.
“I feel like poetry has more of the ability to express emotions and sensations, [and] specific moments in time instead of when there might not be any plot, which I think is really interesting. I don’t know anybody’s life that seriously follows the hero’s journey,” Torres said. “Our life is more composed of thousands of series of tiny moments and the way we feel, and we are shaped more by that. I feel like a lot of times that speaks more to our reality and that can connect you more to the speaker of the poem than you might feel to a protagonist of a novel. I still love both forms of writing, and being obsessed with each one at the point of life that I was at made sense for me.”
Torres has several poems that recently were published in a multitude of literary magazines including Sledgehammer Literary, Lumiere Review, and Coal Rock Repository, which are varied and unique magazines in both their content and design styles. He is additionally extremely interested in publishing a poetry anthology or chapbook in upcoming years.
“There’s something about [the feeling of] being about to go to bed or knowing you should be in bed, to kind of remind you that you don’t know how much time you’re gonna have,” Torres said. “I don’t know, why do I always write stuff at like 3 a.m.? I think part of it is when I’m tired, my thoughts flow more freely. A lot of times, writers worry before they even put pen to page, [and] worry about whether what they are writing or what they are writing about is good enough for their time. When I’m tired, I usually have a little less of that worry. When I wake up in the morning, sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s terrible, sometimes it’s somewhere in the middle, and I can kind of like edit there with my rational brain intact.”
Torres revels in the world of poetry, one he is embracing wholeheartedly. He is thrilled to share his art with the world and encourages other young artists to hone their crafts and let their voices ring resolutely.
“So I would say rule number one is that there are no rules with writing or with art. You should write about what you think is important, [and] about what gives you joy,” Torres said. “Know your worth as a writer and persist. I would say read a wide range [of literature], from bigger publications, older works, and the classics as well as contemporary [or] indie things that are going on. You should write about what you want to read [and] what you want to write instead of worrying about whether other people will want to read it because if you’re passionate about what you do, other people are going to want to read it because that always shows through. You don’t have to wait until you’re an adult or have a degree or even a high school diploma in order to be confident in your writing and in your creative process.”
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