or, How I Figured Out I Was A Real Poet, Maybe.
In 2002, everything inside me exploded. Everything I thought a poem was. Every irrational fear I had about performing. Every notion I harbored about being in my body—my color, my weight, my sense of nationality, my place as a politicized person. My politics. My privilege. My safety. My insecurity. Every word I spoke, changed. Every thought I had became suspect. What I had possessed as a classical education became a betrayal. I became able to stand apart from myself. I ransacked my long-term memory for pieces of myself. I became unrecognizable, and different, even quiet sometimes. And free.
Mott Haven, the Bronx, became a place of poetic memory. East Harlem, the same. The Lower East Side, the same. I had read of these places as a kid growing up in New Jersey, I had heard of them on the news, I saw a movie called Piñero. So when it came time to learn how to be a poet, these are the places I went. No one knew this, but on the days I was supposed to meet friends, or run a show, or attend an open mic in the city, I disappeared into the street. I wandered these places, I searched them. I walked for blocks and blocks and blocks, and I sweated, and I didn’t care. I sniffed the air for something familiar and found places and people. I went to every open mic I could possibly attend. No one really knew me. I barely knew me. But I read a new poem every chance I got. I wrote a new poem literally every fucking day. I was exhausted. I loved it.
I stood in the center of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on a Friday night and listened to poems. I cared only marginally about the game called slam that was being played. When it came my turn to recite a poem, on a stage called the Open Room, I shook. I had read about this place in an anthology called Aloud, and here I was now. I came to know Karen, the slammaster. I became the host of the Open Room. Go read Miguel Algarín’s introduction to Aloud, and you’ll read my job description for that gig. I was part of that history, and I knew it, and I loved it.
I came to a place called bar 13, and I came to know a collective called the louderARTS Project. I made friends here. I made family here. I learned that poetry is a constructed thing sometimes, an intuitive thing sometimes, and always a thing that can be improved upon. I found my critical vocabulary. I had my first, literally my first, semblance of a social life. I met my boys Oscar and Fish. I read crazy books. Oscar and Fish brought me uptown, to the Bronx, to a bar where we had a poetry reading every second and fourth Tuesday. I met Bill Aguado and Leslie Shipman and something called the Bronx Council on the Arts. To this day, there are people who insist I’m from the Bronx.
The reading was called Acentos. We featured Latino and Latina poets. At first, we only knew the poets near us, so we brought them to Mott Haven to a bar on 139th Street and 3rd Avenue then known as the Blue Ox. Which then became the Bruckner Bar and Grill, under the Third Avenue Bridge. We invited our friends. They came. We insisted that poets bring their new shit to our mic, because I learned the hard way that a lot of poets bring their most tired, their most focus-grouped, their most audience pleasing pabulum, to the same spots throughout the city. Other spots eventually caught on to the thing we started, and eventually poets would announce their new shit. And we would repeat it, loudly: NEW SHIT. That’s where it started. I shit you not.
I started looking for people that looked like me in the books I was reading. I could not find them. None but a select few had a Spanish colonial name in the The Big Book of Penguin/Norton/Oxford/Best American/20th Century American Poems, or whatever it was called that day or that year, and so we set out to be that thing, that place where you could come and be unapologetically Puerto Rican or Ecuadorian or Mexican or Dominican. We became the place to drop your Spanish poem, your Hector Lavoe references, your unapologetic Nuyorican Spanglish. We worshipped at the altar of Pedro Pietri, Miguel Algarín, Martín Espada, Jack Agüeros, Sandra Maria Esteves, Magdalena Gomez, Papoleto Melendez, Tato Laviera, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Adrian Castro, Cecilia Vicuña. And dozens of others. And dozens of them became our friends, too. And they kept showing up, and we kept featuring them. Some of them were not from New York. Aracelis Girmay had a first book party there. Andy Gonzalez from the Fort Apache Band played bass as part of an ensemble backing up Americo Casiano. We were nothing but a poetry reading on a street corner, but we were on the same corner as Pura Belpre and the Mott Haven Library, so we were, in fact, in a literary place, not a ghetto, and we told people that, in every language we could.
Then, I started to doubt myself, as one must, perhaps, in the face of so many different and brilliant approaches to poems. I became known more for my organizational clout, my curatorial and hosting skills, than for my poems. I retreated into myself. I didn’t know until much later, maybe until after my divorce, that this was my defense mechanism, my natural tendency. And yes, I got married. I became married, and I became defensive, and I became unsure of my writing. I stayed home more. I stayed away from the places of my poetic memory. I went to work, and then I went to an MFA program, because this was the trajectory: first you slam, then you open mic, then you go and learn how to be a real poet, then fame and fortune and legitimacy are all yours. Maybe even a job teaching in an MFA program. Or, an adjunct position you can work your way up from. This was hope to me, away from the places that had shaped me, that I had turned from in my mind. This was the way I’d make it. The first doubt I had came when the college newspaper printed the fact of my ethnicity as a selling point for their program. I had helped to build an entire movement around marginalized voices, and I now I’d become a bullet point in a magazine to prove a point to some bean counter about diversity. I took a lot of shit from people when I left that program. I was a quitter. I was a career liability. I was not to be trusted or spoken to. In other words, I was a Scientologist.
Some of those people are still out there. Might even be one or two reading this. Them social climbing, conceited, Motherfucker-I-See-You-Quoting-Me-In-Your-Lectures, wine and cheese eating frauds with college degrees. One particularly catty award-winning poet said to me that some people (meaning, me) can hack MFA programs, and some can’t. Fuck you. And that you’re not a real poet unless you’ve read Gerard Manley Hopkins. Fuck that.
I think you become a real poet when you are honest about the things you are afraid of. I think you become a real poet when you can write about people being both angelic and evil at the same time. Mostly though, I think about the lid slamming shut on my brother’s burial crypt. When I heard the thud it made, when the air rushed out of it, when I made the choice to write about that instead of driving my car into a guardrail, I think maybe that’s when I became a real poet. I think if I chose to go to school after that, I may have earned it. I didn’t know shit before my brother’s death. Straight up.
Because when my brother died, I started to roam again. I began seeking again. I left the marriage, I left my home, and I went back to the beginning. I got my heart broken. I found my friends again. I wrote a fucking book because I actually had some things to say. My best friend killed his mother and killed himself. I let that grief eat me alive, and I let the healing that came afterward galvanize my identity as a poet, as a complicated person, and a good writer with a good trajectory. I came back to the places I used to haunt: the Bronx, the Lower East Side, East Harlem, Williamsburg, Bushwick. Realized I’d never left.
I don’t know what I’m saying to you, precisely. You. You, who doesn’t know anyone except when they tell you they’re a writer. You go to your little spot, you write and you read poems, and you go home. Maybe you have a day job. Maybe you don’t have a day job. Maybe you used to run this shit and now you run at a corporate gig you hate but fuck it, it pays bills. Maybe you’ve been doing this shit for years and nobody notices you and it kills you inside.
I used to be the guy who would judge one way or the other because somebody writes a certain way, or acts a certain way, or runs with a certain crowd. I’m not that guy anymore because my trajectory has been derailed and redirected so many times…and so beautifully. I know a spot on the Bronx River so sacred, it can open the entire sky. I know, because I witnessed it. I am curious to know where your sacred places are, what your trajectory is, what you fear and love and need.
This is my testimony: I think I’m poet because I’m a witness, and I think you can be, too.