Volume 80, Number 43 | March 24 - 30, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Poet, father and teacher of form: Willie Perdomo (willieperdomo.com).
The heart’s most fundamental expression
The new poetry of the city, in wordshops and Slams
BY STEPHEN WOLF
Though not invented in New York City, poetry has flourished here as nowhere else in the world and has done so nearly from the start. “All the blessings man e’er knew,” wrote Jacob Steendam when we were still New Amsterdam. “Here does our Great Giver strew.”
Nearly a century ago, Harlem Renaissance poet James Weldon Johnson wrote, “The…greatness of all people is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced.” And surely nowhere has a more prolific spirit for creating poetry than New York City. Downtown, it seeped or flowed in the narrow streets, in Greenwich Village cafes and the beleaguered blocks of the Lower East Side.
Poetry gathered in the Chelsea Hotel’s high ceilings and tumbled in turbulent Union Square, and we can hear some of that right now. Since 1999, in modest, teeming rooms on West 27th Street, our city’s youth have found a place that continues nourishing the heart’s most fundamental expression.
Believing teens can and must speak for themselves (and using the written and spoken word to do so), Urban Word gives afterschool “wordshops” led by two adult mentors and one youth mentor. The topics include creative writing, journalism, college prep, literature and performance. And there’s no charge. This remarkable organization is truly not for profit and survives primarily on the input and passion of its staff and the teenpoets themselves.
Urban Word is currently hosting the 13th Annual New York City Teen Poetry Slam. Nearly 500 poets recite, perform and — though not the intention — compete in various preliminary and semi-finals rounds before the finals in April. Those winners will go on to compete in the National Team Poetry Slam in San Francisco. Young poets from across the city are getting on stage and “spitting lines” in packed and friendly cafes and theaters. Their words are often powerful, raw, revealing and lyrical.
An exciting style of poetry for a while now, Slams have been criticized for a competitive edge, a lack of ethnic diversity (primarily the teenpoets are Hispanic and African-American) and stylistic diversity (there’s more spoken rap than poetry). Still, literary prizes have always been awarded, and yes, the best of writing always shines in the light.
We’re at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (236 E. 3rd St. btw. Aves. B & C; nuyorican.org). For decades, it’s been one of the most important and enduring places for poetry in the city. On the first floor of a five-floor walk-up, the cafe — like the apartments above it — is long and narrow. At the bar in the front sits, contentedly, Miguel Algarín — one of the cafe’s founders and, rightfully, a legend to many of us. The stage at the far end is lit by beams from theater spotlights overhead. The house is crammed with tables, chairs, young poets and much energy (some of it nervous). Hip-hop is playing loudly until the MC steps up to the stage. The music lowers, and the judges are introduced — a few are poets themselves —then, affectionately and collectively (like when the umpires walk onto the ball field), everyone in the house gives a rollicking “Boo!” The house lights dim, a single beam remains on the microphone, and the Slam begins.
The order of the performances is pulled from a bag, and each poet is generously welcomed and encouraged. Many of the presentations are in first person, as early writing often is, and all are personal narratives coming from deep within. Often there’s a purging of some inner demons, often purged with anger; sometimes at a person (generally a parent or lover) and sometimes at a narrow, materialistic, prejudicial society. There’s much meter and rhythm to the pieces, and much rhyme. Most pieces are done from memory; for the most penetrating and vigorous lines or deliveries, the audiences responds with “Ooh” and “Yeah, girl” and finger snapping. Even when a poet draws a blank and can’t find the next words right in the middle of the delivery, the audience still encourages. “You got it, Papi” and “We hear you, brother” (this from everyone, and from no one more than Algarín at the bar).
Walt Whitman remains the prime literary influence — his long breath of words and images, his roll of language and lists. These poems we hear are onslaughts, avalanches — a torrent of words and images piled one upon the next. Often there’s more performance than poem, and an energetic, well-rehearsed performance cannot make a weak poem strong, just as a fine poem cannot be marred by a reciting not as polished or dynamic as some others. Best is when both merge, as performance poetry always has since jazz riffed through Ginsberg’s ravings at the Continental Divide or as the lyre was plucked to Pindar odes in ancient Greek hills.
For when content and delivery combine, then we who love poetry know we are witnessing something very modern, and the best of what was once new and out of the mainstream is now part of a great oral tradition. After poet Emily Weitzman or James Ciano conclude to the marvel of our heartfelt applause, the MC, before introducing the next poet, mourns into the microphone, “I wish I could write.”
One of Urban Word’s adult mentors for a few years now, and a renowned poet himself, is Willie Perdomo — who performed in the first sessions of the original Def Poetry Jam over a decade ago (already “back in the day” for some of these teenpoets). “You can teach form,” he said over coffee in Union Square, “but not what goes into the form,” and like the best of teachers/guides, he gets his students to trust their instincts — to fill the blank pages with fearless truth and to play with language.
Perdomo is large, vigorous, both imposing and gentle, with dark, lively eyebrows, a glistening bald head, and comfortably possessing that most coveted of New York qualities — book and street smarts. In another life he must have been a warrior poet. He has several volumes of published poetry with such irresistible titles as “Where A Nickel Costs a Dime,” and “Smoking Lovely” — and he is quite able to inspire these teenpoets because of the journey and distance he has covered in his own life.
Like Jack Kerouac and Frank O’Hara, Perdomo is part of a tradition of New York poets who, when they first are recognized and published, were outside the American literary scene. Part of this is their character (resisting convention), not easily categorized or labeled. Their work and themes, too, take poetry in new ways by breaking and expanding traditions — in conflict with academia while being the voice of many at that time.
Times change, and Perdomo, too. He’s got a teaching post at Fordham University now, is the 2009 Fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the very proud father of his young son, Neruda. He’s now read in college classrooms and has just returned from a reading in a Texas college — and conducts free wordshops at Urban Word.
Perdomo gets them to read more poetry, to memorize it, to learn about the traditions they follow. But their poetry is also made of what they hear: “I hear you New York,” wrote Langston Hughes uptown, and later Miguel Piñero would cry from a tenement roof, “Let me sing my song tonight.” And all over New York this is happening, not only by the young, of course, though they are the ones who often take poetry in new directions. They have new conversations with the city, making sense of chaos, Perdomo said, engaged with communicating, one heart touching another.
This is New York at its essences: mingled, creative, inventive — like city Little League for my boy, only better. My daughter, Lily, in Perdomo’s wordshop at Urban Word, reads poetry and adds her own voice to that of New York’s.
Two Semi-final rounds take place in the East Village at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on Thursday, March 24 from 6-9pm, and then again on Saturday, March 26, at 3pm. Perdomo won’t be one of the judges in these slams, however. Some of the young poets are his students — and while he teaches and guides, he never judges. These teens get judged plenty, Perdomo figures. “Here’s a safe space.”
The Grand Slam Finals will be held in New York’s legendary Apollo Theater (253 W. 125th St.) on Saturday, April 2, at 7pm. For info, call Urban Word at 212-352-3495 or visit urbanwordnyc.org. Urban Word is located at 242 W. 27th St., # 3A.