Saturday, April 22, 2006

Day Six

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe is one of the most amazing poetry phenomena of the late 20th century: amazing because it made poetry cool and current in a way that even the Beat poets didn't (wouldn't?). Not all alone of course - the Nuyorican was and is a symbol of a larger movement that included strange bedfellows such as MTV and made the performance of poems not just accessible but popular. There have always been high and low culture elements in poetry, of course, but this movement created a unique blurring of the registers, a move that has been both celebrated and criticized. The poetry slam, which originated at the Green Mill in Chicago as the well-worn story goes, found its New York home at the Nuyorican, where it's still going strong. The Cafe was originally founded by Miguel Algarin and a circle of other poets around 1973, beginning in Algarin's living room, and survived in a few locales including the present one until 1982, when it was shut down. Algarin, in his introduction to Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (co-edited by him and Bob Holman), which I spent some of tonight reading through, says that when one of his co-founders Miguel "Miky" Pinero died in 1988 and his ashes were scattered across the Lower East Side in a rowdy poetic procession, he knew it was time to reopen the Cafe. It had always been a place for community - especially the community of Nuyoricans (New York-born Puerto Ricans) - but in the 90's it became something extraordinary, a place that would inspire a wide cross-section of young poets to speak their writing aloud, and that would in the process upset the mainstream paradigm of a dominant white culture and an alternative black culture, replacing it with a more accurate picture of the demographic of the city encompassing mixed cultures: a living subversion of the concept of race.

I visited the Cafe for the first time in something like 1994, on my first ever visit to New York City, and I remember being surprised - I sheepishly confess this now, on behalf of my 22-year-old self who had so little urban experience - at how different what I saw was from what I suppose I expected from poetry performance in a literary capital like New York. Maybe I was expecting some kind of modernized beatnik scene, but what happened was more Latino and more African-American, more influenced by rap, more inflected with Spanish, but also blending all traditions of poetry and performance from troubadours to sonnets to sound poetry - a scene that was intensely aware of its roots in history and in the community. It was also more bluntly political and angrier, more direct, funnier sometimes, less stylish. If you attend the long-running Friday night slam now, you'll see it still attracts a diverse range of people and poets, although the subject matter and styles that come up are usually within a fairly narrow range. Perhaps because the problems that people find most important to write about don't change that much, and the mode of expression - suggestive wit, sardonic indignation - is the one that presents itself most obviously or works most quickly. In the anthology there are some talented poets, and many whom I've seen perform in various places and who have developed reputations that stretch well beyond the Nuyorican or the National Slam or wherever they made their names: Regie Cabico, Maggie Estep, Reg E. Gaines, Tracie Morris, Willie Perdomo, Edwin Torres, Wanda Coleman, Sapphire, Patricia Smith, Emily XYZ, Ntozake Shange, Nicole Blackman, and Eileen Myles, to name just a few of the most well-known, whose careers have gone in as many different directions. But the really interesting thing about this book is how it reverently reproduces the democratic immediacy of the Nuyorican open room: it includes MTV and Broadway stars as well as poets with serious academic reputations along with the steadfast personalities of the community, the absolutely local celebrities, along with some of those who were just passing through and got on the mike one night after a few beers. The Nuyorican became internationally famous as a poetry venue, but what happens there remains a local phenomenon, the community in discussion with itself.


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