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This poem is the title poem to his unpublished book.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