The Spoken Word is Still Heard After 35 Years At Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City
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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember. This week on our program, we go to New York City to visit the thirty-five year old Nuyorican Poet's Café on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
I search the chemistry of specific emotions,
a combination of earth and air
that evokes the vital detail,
the phrase that heats the frying pan,
the look that smiles,
offering signals that localize,
where I am, and clarify what I see.
I'm child of the Electronic Frontier.
I learn off the radio waves
of 98.7 Kiss F.M. salsa/disco jams,
that come from a Sony,
bought even though I need a coat,
even though I'm behind on my payments
for the Trinitron Remote Control Color T.V.
that I picked up at Crazy Eddie's last month.
I'm child of the Columbia Space Shuttle,
and I need to know all the electronic gimmicks
that are already primitive cousins
to those developed today
from eight to five P.M. in Japan.
That poem, "Electronic Frontier," was written by Miguel Algarin. The native of Puerto Rico is a founder of one of New York City's oldest poetry centers -- The Nuyorican Poets Café. Nuyorican is a mix of the words "New York" and "Puerto Rican." It describes Puerto Ricans in America, whether they are in New York or not. The Nuyorican Poets Café is a non-profit arts organization in Manhattan.
Miguel Algarin is sitting in his special seat at the end of the bar in the Café. He has a deep warm voice. He appears exactly as a poet should -- dreamy and intellectual, emotional and distant, humorous and dark.
The Nuyorican Poets Café is in the Loisaida neighborhood of Manhattan. Its borders are debated. Generally, however, they stretch from Fourteenth Street on the north side, Avenue A on the west, Houston on the south and the East River. Loisaida is a "Spanglish" term, or English with a Spanish sound. Loisaida means "Lower East Side." The area is also known as Alphabet City, and sometimes considered part of the East Village.
Historically, the Lower East Side has been home to poor immigrant populations. The area has seen German, Jewish, Polish, Italian and Irish populations come and go. In the forties, Puerto Ricans arrived. And this group stayed.
Loisaida was one of New York's most dangerous neighborhoods in the nineteen seventies and eighties. It was filled with illegal drug sellers and users. The drug trade led to other crimes including stealing and violence. The crime became so bad in Loisaida that its lettered avenues got nicknames. Avenue "A" was for assault, "B" was for battery, "C" was for coma and "D" was for death.
Loisaida was poor and dangerous. But the neighborhood was also home to undiscovered poets, playwrights, and musicians. These included Miguel Pinero, writer of the award-winning Broadway play "Short Eyes." He abused drugs and was jailed for robbery by the time he was a teenager. His work speaks to the short, hard life he lived. Mr. Pinero died of alcohol-related disease in nineteen eighty-eight at the age of forty-one. He was a co-founder of the Nuyorican.
The Reverend Pedro Pietri was another. A former soldier in the United States Army, the Puerto Rican native wrote protest poems and plays about civil rights issues in America. His work and his performances were always exciting. He wore clothes of a Christian clergy member and called himself "Reverend." He died of cancer at the age of fifty-nine.
In nineteen seventy three, Miguel Algarin opened up his apartment to these men and other artists. They would gather to read their work and discuss social issues. His home became very crowded quickly. And there was another problem.
Miguel Algarin was working as a professor of English at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "The thing about poets," he says, "is they like to stay up and talk until about four in the morning. Well, that is when I would be getting up to get ready for class." He says he realized it was time to find a separate space where the poets could gather and he could still get some sleep.
At first, the Nuyorican moved to a rented space on Sixth Street in Loisaida. Then Miguel Algarin and the others were offered a nearby building on Third Street between Avenues B and C. Ellen Stewart, an experimental theater founder, owned the building.
This local arts supporter saw the promise the Café held for new poets. So, she sold the building for only one dollar. The Nuyorican Poets Café remains at Two Thirty-Six East Third Street today. However, in two thousand six, New York City officials renamed Third Street in Loisaida "Reverend Pedro Pietri Way."
"The mission of the Café has always been to support and nurture the arts of the spoken word. So poetry, plays, screenplay readings, and we've expanded to music and visual arts. Our deepest concern is to serve the underserved communities; the people who don't normally get access to arts in the city. Poor people, youth, people of color, so we try to keep our prices very, very low. We try to speak to those communities and provide them with artistic experiences that they can relate to."
That is Roland Legiardi-Laura, a poet, filmmaker and member of the Café's board of directors. And he leads many of the Café's educational projects.
One of those he is especially proud of is the Nuyorican Power Writers Program. The year-long program involves at-risk children in troubled New York City schools. Mr. Legiardi-Laura, poet and writer Joe Ubiles and arts education expert Amy Sultan founded the program in two thousand one.
The program aims to empower young people by making them masters of language and reading. The Power Writers' motto is: "If you don't learn how to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you." Roland LeGiardi-Laura says life feels out of control for a lot of the children he works with. He says the program can help them take control, make changes and imagine a future. They can become "warriors of words."
Mr. LeGiardi-Laura's first Power Writers class was in the Bronx area of New York City. He opened it by telling the children: "The prisons in our country […] are filled with people who can't read or write or speak well. In fact, this is the single most common distinguishing characteristic of an American prisoner -- illiteracy. Not race, not economic background, not an abusive childhood. If you want to have power in this society you must master the three literacies […] this is a class about power, your power."
The Power Writers program is the subject of "To Be Heard," a film that will be released soon. It was paid for by the public television network.
Currently, the Nuyorican Poets Café is best known for its poetry slams. They are held Wednesday and Friday nights. Poetry slams are competitions where poets perform their poems in front of an audience and judges. The poems can be no longer than three minutes and are rated from zero to ten, ten being the best score possible.
Former Nuyorican board member Bob Holman brought slam to the Café from Chicago, Illinois, where it was born. The first slam at the Nuyorican was held in nineteen eighty-nine.
At a slam earlier this month, one poet performed a piece about a girl with a very troubled mother. Here is part of it.
"I used to try on Mommy's jeans, just to see how they'd fit on me. They were always too big for me, but I knew in my heart, that it was Mommy's jeans that help me be the best Mommy that I could be.
But now, Mommy wears my jeans, adorned with glitter belts and shirts that say hottie and sexy. You see, my Mother's not a hottie nor is she sexy. She's more than that. She's beautiful.
I just don't think anyone's ever told her so. She's cocoa brown with the red undertones. She's got the night sky in her eyes, but she wears glitter shirts so she can shine. Not knowing that she's got the shine of the stars and moon in her eyes. Fire on her lips, Cherokee in her blood and Zulu in her hips, she's a Goddess, who has never been told."
The Café also has hip-hop poetry and music events, poetry readings and theatrical productions. And Executive Director Dan Gallant says there is room for expansion. The Nuyorican Poets Café is in a three- level building. Mr. Gallant says the two top floors could be turned into rooms for workshops or studios or more performance space.
All in time, he says. Mr. Gallant notes that the Nuyorican is very lucky as a non-profit organization to own its own building, especially in a recession. "We don't have to worry about paying rent," he says. "We still can keep our entrance prices low. We don't depend so much on money from donors."
Over the years, Loisaida has changed. It is now a desired place to live. Crime has been reduced. Housing prices have increased.
There are still some public housing apartments for poor people, but many fewer than in the past. Developers have bought a lot of empty properties and have re-built costly apartments. There are many popular restaurants and stores in the area.
The Nuyorican Poets Café looks and feels a lot like it did many years ago. But Dan Gallant did get the Café to modernize one way this past year. "We now accept credit cards," he says proudly.
This program was written and produced by Caty Weaver. Our reader was Mario Ritter. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.