Week 2 of #52Essays2017.
Poets on stage at Acentos: A Gathering of Latino and Latina Poets @ Hunter College, February 2008
I was just a poet wanting to read a poem the first night I came here. -Willie Perdomo, "Spotlight at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe"
In March of 2003, Acentos made its debut as a poetry reading in the South Bronx. We held our events every second and fourth Tuesday at a spot called the Blue Ox Bar, on 139th Street and Third Avenue, a block up from the 6 train. Acentos was dedicated, mainly, to one prospect: that we could build a home and provide a spotlight for the Latino poetic voice in New York City. At the time, there were three poetry slams in the city: the Nuyorican, Urbana at the Bowery Poetry Club, and the louderARTS Project at Bar 13, Union Square. We didn’t run on Tuesday for any other reason than we didn’t want our reading to conflict with them.
I did not arrive at Acentos until May. It was Oscar Bermeo and Fish Vargas, two poets from the Bar 13 scene who later became my best friends, who started things. Oscar had shown up in January as the featured reader for First Wednesdays, an open mic hosted by Leslie Shipman, who at the time was working with Bill Aguado at the Bronx Council on the Arts. Oscar took one look at the venue, and between he and Fish, they decided this was the place to run a series reminiscent of what we thought the Nuyorican Poets Cafe would look like for young Latino poets like us.
We were disappointed that the pages of the Nuyorican anthology, or the ghosts and denizens of Steve Cannon’s legendary stoop, didn’t run out to greet us the first time we stood on line at the Friday night Nuyorican slam. We found a crowd there, but not necessarily a crowd that would have appreciated what we had to say in Spanglish, or what we had to say about manhood, fatherhood, the Bronx, or Paterson, or your boys, or your familia on Noche Buena, or dance floors, or velitas para los muertos. To put it lightly, we had some shit on our minds. And we knew there were poets like us who wanted the space to say it, out loud, without translation or apology.
And so, we did. Oscar and Fish kicked it off in this bar in the South Bronx owned by a white boy named Rony, right around the corner from the precinct. When Ed Garcia, our friend and fellow poet, was asked by Rony if any of the poets would be spouting off any anti-American poetry, he said, “Oh no, none of that.” Knowing Ed, I imagine there was complete and utter poker face at this plain lie. They came with it, and every night the open mic came with it, with every bit of performance-readiness they could muster. By May, the curiosity around this space was too much to handle, and I started making my way into a borough I hadn’t seen since my father ran a cleaning crew for Wilfred Academy up on the Grand Concourse. He’d been jumped there, and he ran there back in the day, and the thought of my suburbanite ass going to the Bx on a biweekly basis was enough to have him believing in rosary beads again.
In June, I was asked to become a member of the organizing committee. It was me, Fish, Oscar, and eventually my homegirl Jessica Torres, who were sitting in the middle of a community of poets, Latino/a poets. This was the movement we’d been waiting for, and the open mic at Acentos was nothing short of church for us. The poets we broke bread with had no ulterior motives, no cares for pedigree, and love for one another. It’s a family I’ve tried to recreate and maintain in every space I’ve set foot in since.
I studied poetry on a formal basis only once, and it was ill-fated. I ended up in graduate school, working on a degree I didn’t want, because I thought it was the next logical step for a Latino poet who had started out in slam. I thought I needed the title because that’s what poets do: you slam for a little while, you hit the open mic, you discover there’s a world inside the books, and then you start discovering dead white guys have some shit to say too, and you want to publish books and maybe make a living doing it. Soon, of course, you’re told there is no living just “being a poet.” You have to teach it. And to teach it, you need a degree. And the degree for poets is this magical mystery title called the MFA, which officially stands for Master of Fine Arts, but which you learn stands for “More Fucking Adjuncts,” at least among poets. Many friends of mine have gone down that route. We all bought into it in one way or another, with varying degrees of success and publishing credentials.
A little bit into my journey, a professor told my cohort that working in one genre was not enough for a real university teaching job. You have to be a poet and…something, anything. Poet/Memoirist. Poet/Fiction Writer. Poet/Jai Alai Player. Who the hell knows. He even went so far as to show us actual slush piles for jobs, massive towers of job applications in which otherwise qualified applicants were rejected because they had the nerve to write only poetry books.
Soon after we were sold the terminal degree dream, we were told our dream needed a systems upgrade: the Ph.D. in creative writing. Because creative writing is a science, and you can break it down as such and become a doctor in your chosen specialty. A Doctor of Elizabeth Bishop’s study of small things. A Doctor of the sublime and the ridiculous in the New York School. A Doctor of line breaks and stanza configuration. Suddenly the Ph.D. was the place to be, and your MFA was the iPhone 4.
There is also the community: your cohort in your graduate study. You become brothers and sisters in arms. (Well, the year I got in, it was mostly dudes, but you get the point.) You learn together. You teach composition together. You get into fights about literary representation allied with the two students of color you can find. And, you meet and greet. The schmooze factor can loom large. The writers show up, the directors lead you over to where they’re standing, and you shake hands and volunteer to drive to the bar, and you eat and you drink and you let the school pay for it.
Most of the writers who came in were people I already met running that reading series in the Bronx, frequenting other readings in Manhattan, and going to house parties in Brooklyn. (There’s always a house party in Brooklyn that involves writers. There’s probably one happening right now.) And it was clear that the MFA was not the thing to keep me employed as a poet. And it was further clear that much of the socializing came to be some painful fakery and gossipmongering…all of which you have to pay money for. Couple this with a raw and unhealthy dose of low self-esteem, and well, you can see where this is going.
Before I left the program, Acentos the reading series was being hosted and co-curated by my boys at the time, Fish and John Rodriguez. At least, that’s how I recall it now. The timelines are a bit blurry these days, which is why I find myself writing this at all. That year, I made it a point to take advantage of the fact that there was a large writers’ conference coming to New York, and I invited thirty-three Latino poets to take part in a reading at the Hunter College School of Social Work. I invited poets without books and without degrees, alongside poets who were teachers and students in academia, as well as slam poets, performance poets, Nuyorican poets, Chicano poets, elders and young bucks alike. We stood on that stage, thirty-three of us, with an audience of 250, and we gave nary a damn who was who, or who had been studied up or pedigreed, or whose book had won which award. This was the community I wanted to show the world, where every story and poem mattered, and where all of us had a voice. And we did exactly that; not just that night, but with every poet and musician Acentos featured in the eight or so years that it existed.
From California, my boy Oscar called me and told me he felt like he was there. Life had moved him from New York to Cali, but he wasn’t far away this night. He’d seen the picture Fish had us take. It was the culmination of a movement we’d worked for, and as grateful as I am that I was in the place I was, I didn’t need membership in a degree program to make it happen.
Acentos ended up taking many forms between 2003 and 2012. We were a reading series first, and we took a lot of shit for only featuring Latino and Latina poets. But so what.
I like lists. So from memory, here’s a partial list of people who featured for us:
Miguel Algarín. Sandra Maria Esteves. Victor Hernandez Cruz. Magdalena Gomez. Martín Espada. Jack Agüeros. Nancy Mercado. Aracelis Girmay. Cecilia Vicuña. Reyna Grande. Ada Limón. Grisel Acosta. Vincent Toro. Amalia Ortiz. Urayoán Noel. Jessica Torres. Ray Medina. Maria Nieves. Cristina Vélez. Rachel McKibbens. Rigoberto Gonzalez. Adrian Castro. Jorge Monterossa. Javier Huerta. Four collectives: Climbing Poetree, Las Gallas, Mahina Movement, and Proletariat Bronze. Edwin Torres (the poet). Willie Perdomo. Ed Garcia. Tato Laviera. Patrick Rosal. Louis Reyes Rivera. F Omar Telan. Maria Aponte. Bobby Gonzalez. Pedro López Adorno. Bonafide Rojas. Anthony Morales. John Rodriguez. Americo Casiano. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez. Mariposa. Sandra Garcia Rivera. Emmanuel Xavier. Regie Cabico. Sabrina Hayeem-Ladani. John Murillo. Diana Marie Delgado. Eduardo Corral. Joaquin Zihuatanejo. Raina Leon. Francisco Aragon. Mayda Del Valle. Karen Jaime. Carlos Andrés Gómez. Lemon Andersen. Flaco Navaja. Eliel Lucero. Paul Martinez Pompa.
And that’s maybe half the list, and it doesn’t count all of the people we invited to Hunter College in 2008.
We also became a journal. The Acentos Review was founded the night a group of us came together at the Bruckner Bar and Grill (our venue after 2005). It was Raina Leon and Eliel Lucero who co-founded the journal, and everyone we couldn’t possibly feature ended up in the journal; published four times yearly; in poetry, fiction, and prose. The journal is the last project left with the Acentos name on it. Raina is still running things. And if there are 250 writers the journal has featured so far, it sounds like a low estimate.
And we were a workshop, too. And here is where Fish broke the rule about Latino features and facilitators. But, when you break a rule, and you manage to get facilitators like Major Jackson, Greg Pardlo, Cornelius Eady (to name three of literally dozens) to come in, it’s a good rule to break. One highlight of that era, for me, had to have been when Lorna Dee Cervantes flew across the country to facilitate a workshop for us. But, for a lot of people who knew Acentos after 2009, the workshops are what they knew us for. And I got to meet a ton of beautiful people in workshop there that I still count as friends and familia: Jani Rose, Vanessa Mártir, Angelique Rodriguez, Rock Wilk, Thomas Fucaloro, Jose Vilson, LiYun Alvarado, and one young lady named Nilki Benitez, who used to come see us in the Bronx all the way from Pennsylvania.
I think there might be another place to write about what went wrong with Acentos. I haven’t spoken in years to many of the folks from the early days. And if I’m to be frank, I had a wild ego, along with profound insecurity at my own skills as a poet, which led to me pushing a lot of people away. And, if I’m to be even more frank, there are some folks I’d prefer to keep silent toward. Self-preservation is a motherfucker.
This may end up being the only story I tell you about a place I helped to run, a community I was part of as a writer. Or maybe this is part one of many. Lord knows, I’ve only told you a skeleton of the total tale. It all has to be documented somehow.
This is what I need you to hear. Many years ago, two poets had this idea to develop a safe space for Latino/a poets in New York. We turned it into a safe space for Latino/a poets around the nation, in the South Bronx, around the corner from Pura Belpre’s old stomping grounds at the Mott Haven branch of the public library. We turned it into gatherings. We turned it into publications. We turned it into panel presentations. Some of the people we brought through our doors opened doors for others elsewhere. Movements like Acentos continue in Brooklyn and the Bronx and Manhattan and Jersey. Workshops like Acentos still move at La Sopa and CantoMundo. And we run in solidarity with the Librotraficantes in Texas and Arizona. And we run in California with new names and faces.
I’ve seen a lot of talk lately about readings and protests and poets and organizations who want to preach resistance in this new political era. What drove me to write this at all was the fact that every list of poets I’ve seen curated, every effort we’ve made to gather together, has fallen short in some way, or demonstrated some kind of elitist bias. I’m here as testimony that equity among artists starts among artists. It is not impossible. I’m proud to say that we stood for this equity at Acentos. We were not always effective, but we made every effort we could to get there. My community was the continuation of something, a pan-Latino extension of the Nuyorican aesthetic: public performance and comunidad in solidarity. We are, were, about poetry as a tool for citizenship and communication. It’s not about the industry that publishes us, it’s about us.
The communities we build and exist among as artists cannot rely on hierarchies. We cannot censor ourselves based on language or respectability politics or pedigree. We are most effective when a diversity of voices all exist within the Latinx canon, and we as Latinx writers cannot demand equity with our counterparts elsewhere until we practice that equity ourselves. If you get down in community with your folks at the open mic, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you find your voice within an MFA program or within the structures of academia, there’s strength there too. But we must not replicate the ivory towers we seek to demolish. I learned this lesson from the friends and allies I made at Acentos. I learned how to build there. I learned how to be a poet there.
I wrote the poem in an unlined journal, the way Jessica told me to, because lines disrupt though. I wrote it diagonally, from corner to corner, in a way that showed up later on a printed page like a heartbeat, or a wave, or a skyline. I didn’t have the terminology for something called concrete poetry. I’d never kept a journal before. I didn’t know what koans meant, and I didn’t have the eye for syntax or line break or one particular school of poetics.
All I knew was that I was a poet, and this place was my home, and I was there three full hours before showtime, in the Bronx, with a pen and a book, and this was everything.