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Signs: An Epistolary

Here’s a prose poem for National Poetry Month.
No, I’m not doing 30/30.
But here’s a poem anyway.
For our boy. For my boy.

_______________________
Signs: An Epistolary

Bronx, New York
July 2014

John,

A man with your face crossed my path on the way to the Burke Avenue Bridge. By your face, I mean the bald head. The black frames of your glasses. The eyes that gave away nothing, noted everything. The gait that told the world that this was your hood, you had business here, you were not to be fucked with. I watched him walk away from me, all the way up the granite steps at the entrance to Bronx Park, and I knew I was where I needed to be. I saw your ghost. Yes, I saw your ghost. Because Boricuas stay seeing shit. Because bomba conjures. Because our mothers and our grandmothers and the ache of knowing bones. I knew it was you.

Three Dominican boys were playing in the Bronx River. It’s clean and clear now, and that’s unheard of. Because the city poured millions of dollars into its renewal, dredged out tires and skulls and bottles and horseshoes, because white people from Westchester run kayaks down here, like the good old days before Hispanics, there are signs that tell everyone No Swimming. Maybe these boys didn’t see the sign. Maybe this is a river in a homeland long ago abandoned, an exile no one has told them about. Or maybe, most likely, they saw the sign, and they simply didn’t give a fuck. Because this is the Bronx, and the Bronx stay doing illegal shit, because how else would we survive this mierda, this planned shrinkage, this forced march in the guise of progress. Because water is a birthright, and que se vayan pa’l carajo.

There was a spot near the boys, a patch of riverbank that would support the weight of your funeral. It was only gonna be a handful of us. It was as it should be. You made sure of it. One low path, and you could stand on the side of the river, on a dirt patch covered with something like carpet. Someone clearly had this idea before I did. A cop can’t see it from the bridge or the bike path. It’s grimey; therefore, it’s perfect.

I blessed the bridge with honey for Elegua. I blessed the river with an offering for Oshun. Nobody stopped to watch me. A white moth danced above my head.

We returned with your ashes in a plastic teal box. It could have been a bag of sugar. A sticker on the box says they cremated you in New Jersey, bro. Que jodienda. You came out there for me once, to go visit the ocean and eat ridiculous amounts of meat in Asbury Park. You looked for the city from the beach. It was your compass. How you loved that city. You would have walked on water to get there. Maybe you did.

I did some research, bro. In New York City, it’s illegal to release human ashes in public waterways. The fine is one hundred dollars. It cost us thirty grand to bury my brother, but that’s not illegal. My conscience is clear, son. Fuck em.

On the day of your funeral, someone cried. Someone took dirt home with them. Mostly, we stood gathering ourselves for what we had to do, what we knew to be right even though we had to hide it. She brought your ashes. She prayed and poured them into the river. You moved like a fog sinking to the riverbed, a slow motion avalanche on a film reel. You settled into tree roots, rocks. Shards of you. Thick remains of you. Clouds of you. I understand why the city tells people not to do this shit, because on the real, the river actually turned grey. Only for a little while, though. We watched the current carry away the more stubborn pieces. We saw ancient mud come alive with new ashes. And we watched the river turn clear again. We placed you in the last patch of forest left in this place. You couldn’t leave if you wanted to.

There was a butterfly in the underbrush, and he flew erratically at our feet. Oya sent the rain in sheets when I chose this place, like the entire sky wanted to fall on me. It didn’t. I still got home. If I told you a rainbow appeared over the Bronx River Parkway, you’d tell me to cut it from the story. Because who would believe that shit? That wasn’t you in the park, you’d say, and you’d be wrong. Even you, John, even you came back to the water, as everything must, eventually.

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2016 in Uncategorized

 
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A Note to Event Planners On Behalf of Freelance Artists

respect

If you are an events organizer, or if you are any kind of planner engaging a speaker, an educator, a curator, an author, a lecturer, a workshop facilitator…really, if you engage any kind of freelance service for pay, then this message is for you.

This is not directed at any one organization or individual, because unfortunately, the problems described here are problems that literally every freelancer has had to deal with at least once in their lives.

Every single freelancer I know has been faced with a very difficult conversation with someone who has contracted them to do a service: the money conversation. Namely, then whens and hows and other processes around timely payment of artist fees. For those of us in the arts, it is the bane of our existence. It is stressful. It can even be traumatizing. Why? Because our business requires us to maintain relationships, and no one wants to do business with people in a strained relationship. It’s safe to say that any strain on a patron’s relationship potentially takes money out of an artist’s pocket. And the unfortunately reality for most of us is that the artist is the first one to be tossed out on their ass when it comes time to make budget cuts.

In this atmosphere, the average artist will put up with just about anything. One of the greatest challenges we put up with surrounds the timely payment of agreed upon artist fees. It needs to end.

I cannot tell you how many times, in the years I’ve been a freelance artist, that I’ve been told one or more of the following sentences:

1) “There is a process involved with payment. Unfortunately, this will result in a delay of your honorarium.”

2) “I’m sorry. We did not obtain the funding we thought we would. We have to reduce your pay.”

3) “That’s not what we agreed to. Here’s the pay we thought we worked out.”

4) “I’m sorry, we have to cancel.” (This happens, most times, the week of the event, sometimes the very day.)

5) “I don’t know when you’ll get paid. That’s another department.”

6) “You are making me uncomfortable with your questions about payment.”

Organizers. Please. I cannot stress this enough: it is fundamentally disrespectful to the person you have contracted to not pay them in a timely manner, or shepherd them off to another department, or act as if they are a problem to confront when the conversation turns to money. Money keeps the bills paid. Money keeps the rent paid. Money allows artists to keep creating more art. You know this, because you don’t do your job for free, either.

When we are contracted to come to your school, your event, your place of business, your slam event, your whatever, you are not hiring someone to show up and distract people for a certain amount of time. Speakers work for a living. Artists work for a living. Teachers work for a living. This requires us to write, to create, to prepare a speech or a lesson plan, to arrange for time on our calendars, to arrange for travel, to plan on audio/video setup and other artist materials, and to plan for a myriad of other concerns that come with showing up to your event; and NOT for the purpose of distracting people, but to keep them engaged, or to convince them of something, or to teach them something.

Organizers. Read this and refer to it often, and share it with your fellow organizers: You must pay your artists and curators on time, every time, without exception. This is proper form. You must tell them about any processes involved with their payment, you must get their paperwork to them on time, and you must make sure they know exactly when they are slated to be paid. And you must let them know these things FAR IN ADVANCE, so that they can plan their lives. That’s basic respect. That is your job as an organizer. I know you may not know this. I know the job may have been foisted on you. But that IS your job. It doesn’t come after you pay the caterer. It doesn’t come after you jump through a million bureaucratic hurdles with your college to get access to the multipurpose room. It is one of your first responsibilities. You are contracting a service, and the service must be paid for. But more importantly, you are dealing with a human being who possess the intelligence, accomplishments, and skill set that you would like your group to be engaged by. And that human being deserves respect.

When an artist has to start asking you fundamentally simple questions about payments, they are not making your life difficult. They are not someone “to be handled.” Don’t bring in a third party to break news you can’t break them. Handle it yourself. Make the calls you need to make to the accounts payable department…because I guarantee you, if you don’t, they will. And if the artist is visiting from out of town, don’t ambush them with paperwork they have to fill out to get their check at some point down the road. Have those processes done and have a check ready when they get there.

An agent will demand exactly that. You can bet your ass that any celebrity or “distinguished guest” will expect to be paid when they get there. Why? Because everyone knows that person deserves respect. But here’s the thing…and PLEASE, burn this into your minds now and forever: EVERYONE DESERVES RESPECT. Everyone deserves to be paid for the work they do, and immediately so. Punto. End of text.

Now, before you object to this manifesto with language about “process,” please save us the lecture. All I have ever asked any client for, and all any freelancer should ask any client for, is CLARITY AND TIMELINESS on the process for payment. If you choose to organize an event, this is a basic need, and you need to get it done. Don’t blame the artist for making your life difficult. Instead, get the artist paid for their time, and don’t make them wait for weeks or months at a time without telling them up front what to expect.

And artists: Please don’t let anyone tell you that you are undeserving of respect. Please don’t believe the lie that you are any less worthy of a timely payment because you don’t have notoriety or fame. You have skills and you are being contracted for them. Advocate for yourselves. Don’t accept poor treatment.

Artists and freelancers deserve respect, not excuses, not ostracization or obfuscation. If you believe this, then please share this message with someone who can benefit from it.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Allies, Firefighters, and the Genesis of Representation Anxiety in Big Ass Literary Spaces

Allies, Firefighters, and the Genesis of Representation Anxiety in Big Ass Literary Spaces
…the idea that there were writers of my ilk, my ethnicity, my races, my familia, that somehow felt left out of the American canon, or out of certain anthologies and journals, or who felt mistrust toward anyone because they were marginalized, was not only foreign to me, but infuriating.
Yet, the one common thread I can link all of these writers to is a phenomenon I call Table of Contents Anxiety. This is not an affliction, to my knowledge, that is suffered by Anglo writers. (I will happily stand corrected if need be.) Table of Contents Anxiety arises when the first reaction to holding a new journal or anthology in your hands, before you even read one line of literature, is to flip open the Table of Contents and quickly scan it for black folks, or Latinos, or Native Americans, or anything, ANYTHING, besides the usual Smorgasboard of the Unsurprising when it comes to editors and their lists…
Me. 2011. “Poets/Editors on Race and Inclusivity.” Presented at AWP.

Yes, I am inspired by a recent controversy—a series of them, at this point—that is currently shaping discourse in the literary world: specifically, institutional spaces and their wack responses to challenges in their efforts on diversity. To be clear, I have many thoughts, and I imagine you do too, about the model of any kind of literary or critical output that tells writers of color that we have to ask the permission of white people and large institutions in the first place.

There are any number of places you can find out those specific facts, ill-written HuffPo articles, and social media posts from the people who posed the questions and the people who responded to them. I think if you get creative with the Google, you can feed your particular brand of jones. I do not intend to give more energy to the institutions and people at fault for the various firestorms. Because truly, one bit of bochinche or another does not change the whole truth of what marginalized writers have to handle on the daily.

In 2011, I described a very specific phenomenon at play whenever we get a new book in our hands. Like the students we teach, like the curious othered kids we were, we needed to see ourselves represented in the literature we were being asked to read and glean life lessons from. Ask anybody you think is your ally: Table of Contents Anxiety is the realest. But I think we in the literary world can more accurately term this phenomenon Representation Anxiety. That is, the act of searching through any curated list of featured readers, reading lists, pedagogies, graduate school admissions statistics, conference panel selections, festival lineups, contest winners, or national or regional literary events, for evidence that people of color and their work are being accurately and proportionately represented.

Obviously, one reads this and thinks, well, so what do you people want? Numbers of writers of color for every damn journal? Percentages of people represented? Equal representation for all? I mean, JEEZ, you people are really pushy! Is it literary affirmative action you’re looking for? And do you have to be so NASTY about it?

The answers are: 1) Numbers would be great. 2) Percentages would be great too. 3) Equal representation would be lovely. 4) Yeah, my mom says I’m pushy too. Funny huh? Ever since I was a kid. We call that “being a jodón.” 5) Yes. And no. 6) You need to read more June Jordan. “The civilities that grease oppression,” and such.

I mean. Obviously.

Listen. I know enough Latin@ writers who bristle being called Latina or Latino at all. And more than one critic I respect hates the idea of us being lumped together as people of color. But I’ve yet to meet anyone, any writer or editor, when asked if diversity within the literary world is a bad thing, who would answer to my face, “Why, no Rich, I rather enjoy my all-white lineup of MFA graduates and Pulitzer finalists.” (That’s not saying they’re not out there. I’d actually like to meet them, in the open, in my Pancho Villa stance where I can see them.) In my experience, any journal or festival or conference or grand old literary institution actually benefits when more people are involved with it, and happily so. So why wouldn’t diversity be a good thing?

Yes, we count. Yes, we use numbers. When one finds themselves completely invisible from a given publication, damn right you use the numbers of people you find—big, massive numbers like “2,” or “1,” or “0”—to calculate how disappointed you are. Any institution that aspires to represent a large swath of American writers should probably expect to be asked a few questions. It should be considered neither rude, nor pushy, nor particularly shocking, when a person asks for numbers and percentages. This is what accountability looks like. This is not difficult, unless you don’t feel like being accountable. I should not expect to engage with literary organizations the way a parent deals with a petulant teenager.

And yet, this is the behavior we’re now being forced to deal with. The centers of American critical capital, even those with a demonstrable commitment to diversity, are losing their collective shit when someone merely asks a question, or pens an essay, or makes an inquiry. You can expect passive-aggressive phrasing in the introductory paragraphs of a list of writers: “I’m colorblind. Let’s just focus on the writing.” You can expect angered responses from executive directors. And somehow, despite the battles we fight, you can still find several all-white reading lists in major global publications. These are not accidents. Not in the light of this day. I don’t buy that.

Because in this day, there are indeed writers of color who are employed, engaged with, published, and featured in journals and spaces that weren’t always for them. They are the administrators who have to be called upon to send a backchannel note when one of their white allies demonstrates some non-allied behavior. And they are the writers and publishing professionals of color who are asked—or more accurately, feel obligated—to maintain silence and demonstrate loyalty to the organization that gave them room, when that organization (or someone representing it) decides to sound off on how unfair it is for people to count numbers.

Representation Anxiety doesn’t end when you get your foot in the door in the literary space. Far from it. Now that you’re here, you have to stay here, you have to bring the next one, you have to make sure the door remains propped open. Maybe you have to open a door. Maybe you have to pry it back open from the inside because it closed on you. And you have to put out fires. Like Edward James Olmos said in Selena: It’s exhausting.

But whatever. We do this shit every single day, we live our lives like this in the literary world, and we give ourselves agita and bang our heads against the wall, and we don’t complain about it until we finally have our necks just above the quicksand. Why? Because this is not merely about how much we spend yearly to jump on a plane to wherever the conferences are. It’s because literature is the story of the culture, the snapshots that tell us how we are as a society in the present moment. We don’t write simply to express our individual existential anxiety, or the triumph of practical magic in a cynical world. To be sure, we can, and we often do. But for many of us on the margins, we do it in service to the communities we come from. For us, literature is the witness to the times we live in, to the human beings who rise and fall and live and die in every last thread of the American fabric. Living, and dying, by every means you know in the popular media, and a few you cannot know until you read us. That’s why we value the perspectives of Latina essayists from Bushwick and East New York, black poets from the South Bronx and Oakland and New Orleans, Filipina and Haitian and Hmong and Palestinian fiction writers and filmmakers and playwrights and performers from Detroit and Houston and Chicago and Philadelphia and Paterson. That’s why we do it, even when we don’t have institutional backing, even when we have to publish and fund ourselves, even when we don’t have an MFA.

An ally is someone who knows all this, without being told to know it. An ally is someone who remembers the genesis of our anxieties, and helps us to put an end to them. Because here’s a shocker: in the end, we really don’t give a shit about your numbers, either. We want to see your concrete intentions to truly know what it is we say and do and witness. And if you really don’t want to know what we know, I’d like you to be honest enough to say, not in my backyard. It’s cool if we can’t be friends. But what we really don’t want is a grudging friend, a half-assed ally. We don’t need your lectures, your snark, or your satire. Act with us. Stand with us.

Or, at the very least, stay still while we work around you. Despite you.

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

The Center Cannot Hold: my new essay at Latino Rebels.

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Aqui Estamos, baby. Check out my new essay on the New York Times’ all-white summer list, criticism on the BreakBeat Poets, and why white people need to come get their boy Ron Silliman. Bookended by my work with La SoPA. Cuz it bees like that!

http://www.latinorebels.com/2015/05/28/the-center-cannot-hold-aqui-estamos-all-up-on-your-summer-reading-list/

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

“Always Here” at the 2015 Loisaida Festival

The 2015 Loisaida Festival was a tremendous success! I had the pleasure of reading my poem “Always Here” with the crew at La SoPA and Capicu Culture. Check it out:

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Summer Update: La SoPA, VONA, CEG, Bronx Loaf, and Other Acronyms

I have been one busy wizard….

 

Around the corner from Harlem Stage. There was no dancing involved, but there should've been.

Around the corner from Harlem Stage. There was no dancing involved, but there should’ve been.

Let me count the ways.

1

This past Tuesday, I was involved in a follow-up meeting to the Cultural Equity Group’s town hall gathering at Riverside Theater. I’m excited to be a part of this advocacy group, as some of the most dynamic leaders in the arts world in New York are involved, and we are all fighting for one common goal: the equitable treatment and funding of arts organizations that contribute to the cultural life of New York City. We can’t simply fund the big institutions and leave our community artists and organizations struggling for survival, certainly not when they contribute to the cultural health of the city, and the nation. This city has been a cradle of world literature, from the Harlem Renaissance to the Nuyorican movement, and then some. We have to fight to make this culture sustainable for artists.

2

I have been accepted to VONA/Voices! It is the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color in the nation, and its new home is the University of Miami. So I’ll actually have a chance to be there with family, and in fellowship with writers from across the nation. I am working on the most personal series of poems I’ve ever dealt with–the emotional territory of weight and body issues, and how that relates to my manhood. Not easy, but well. I think this workshop, led by Ruth Forman, is exactly where they need to be heard.

And. I’m raising money to get there. Donations are currently being accepted at my GoFundMe page. I’m already halfway to my goal!

To help a wizard make the magic happen, click this bag of pixie dust.

To help a wizard make the magic happen, click this bag of pixie dust.

3

I’m teaching at La SoPA NYC, starting this coming Saturday, at our new home: The Loisaida Center on Avenue C and 9th Street. Click here for more details, and to sign up.

Here’s my course description.

****

Back/Line: Poetry, Sound, Lineation, and the Tools of Cultural Expression
In stagecraft, the backline are the tools and instruments needed to create sound for live performance. Taking full advantage of our surroundings at the Loisaida Center, this workshop will operate under the assumption that writers come to poetry through multiple sources: auditory and literary, page and ear. We will explore the proposition that the poem can be another kind of performance. Without privileging one form of poetic expression over another, we will build poems out of sound cues, story prompts, lineation, and compelling language. We will continue the historical study of the art, explore new forms, and dig into our (sometimes raw) personal histories for new and resonant tools of universal expression. We will discuss the concept of duende in poetry. We will discuss the difference between cultural capital and capitalism, and where they should and should not cross. Finally, we will discuss a few frontline concerns and talk about distribution and presentation of the finished work.

****

We fancy, yo! I’ll be in the house with Keith Roach, and our co-facilitators Anthony Morales and Jani Rose (doing double Dean duty!), and of course, our boy Papo Swiggity, the other Dean of La SoPA, the chupacabra behind the curtain at Capicu Culture.

In all seriousness: It’s our function as educators and artists to bring what we know to the places that would otherwise not be able to access this knowledge. Our mission is to bring world-class arts education and fellowship to the community, at an affordable price. If you take your calling as poets seriously, then please come join us. We’ll be here Saturdays from May 9th through June 20th.

4

Bronx Loaf is a conference for teen writers in the Bronx, coming this July to the Bronx Academy of Letters. It is modeled on the Bread Loaf conference, with emphasis on craft, workshopping new work, and learning in assembly together. I am on the faculty! And we are LOOKING FOR STUDENTS: If you know any bookish teens, born writers, and creative young people in New York City, send them to us for a week in July! Click the link above for more info.

 

Whew! A wizard’s work…and the acronyms that follow it…is never done, people. But I love it!

Find you soon….

 

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The OPP Challenge, Day 30: “The Good Ounce,” by John Rodriguez

The OPP Challenge, Day 30: “The Good Ounce,” by John Rodriguez

Folks: An apology, but not really.

I got busy. My life, my writing, various projects needing my attention. And so, The OPP Challenge got cut short.

I always had this poem in mind, however, for the last day of National Poetry Month. What I didn’t realize was just how relevant it would be, given the events of the last week in Baltimore. And so, I’m making the effort to make sure you see it.

I’m writing about Paterson, New Jersey, my hometown. A bear. A waterfall. The neighborhoods I grew up around, and in. My city was the first planned industrial city in the United States. And now the nation is dotted with former industrial cities, now suffering the ills of globalization, gentrification, and the legacies of race.

I don’t think I would be able to tackle the topic of my hometown, in the larger context of my personal identity and the nation itself, if it wasn’t for the work of John Rodriguez. John was a professor of Composition and Rhetoric, and he had an amazing critical lens through which he viewed the world. His was a liberatory pedagogy. He had words and fire for the purveyors of substandard education in New York City and the United States. He had words for a corrupt system. He used his own educational narrative as a model of literacy obtained despite the best attempts of that system to wipe him out. And he was a poet—a laser-sharp critic, poet, and essayist.

This poem is the title poem to his unpublished book. There is a nod here to (Puerto Rican poet) William Carlos Williams’ “Of Asphodel That Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die every day for lack of what is found there.” You can’t get a good ounce of news anymore, John says here. If you’ve watched the news like I have the last couple of days, John’s words resonate more than ever. And yet, he called his book “The Good Ounce,” as if poetry itself was the good news, the gospel, the salvation we needed.

My boy was brilliant.

John died in 2013. I miss him, man. Every single day. When I watched Ferguson, and New York, and now Baltimore, I thought of him. I wondered what he would have said, and written, and taught his students. I know that whatever it was, he would have done it the way he did it here: live and direct from Gun Hill Road. From the street’s perspective. From the ground up. The mighty Bx, baby.

You can find John’s work in the April 2015 issue of Poetry magazine (shout out to Don Share for that one) as well as in the new anthology The Break Beat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop (shout out to Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall).

(Photo: Gun Hill Road, April 1973, about four months before John was born. Photo by William Palter.)

The Good Ounce

It’s been like impossible
to get a good ounce
of smoke in this town
since this Trade Center
shit went down
says the Puerto Rican mayor
elect of Gun Hill Road
My connect is gonna hafta
start submarinin my weed
up the Bronx River he says
and you can tell
by the way
no one is laughing
out loud that it
might be true because
the corner is so thirsty
pipe dreams now skip
the raisin stage and dry
up into piles of human
excrement on the sidewalk

After swerving off the
Henry Hudson red white
and blue bloodshot eyes
scan the streets for that
ounce of medicine or that
pound of pure There’s a
different mathematics
in their out-of-state plates
of America than there is
for natives in the city:
vehicular suspension for conspiracy
to smoke lovely your parents’
US Savings Bonds divided
by ineligibility for federal
subsidies for CUNY education
because you were down
to your last nickel
when you were caught
leaves the remainder of
spics and niggas
swearing themselves into service
to be all they can be
and to missile all they can missile
of people of color across the globe

Funny how the wisest
people of the times
are the ones stuck on pipe dreams
If you keep your ear to the
street where your ass is instead
of in the Middle East where it
doesn’t belong or in the
White House Press Room
where they sell the purest
white shit around you
will hear them say it has
always always
been like impossible
to get a good ounce of smoke
a good ounce of medicine
a good ounce of news
or a good ounce of
anything in this town

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

 
 
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