Bring the Noise

I’m getting ready for my spot this afternoon on the KWMR’s Rhythm and Muse talk show and thinking about where I was about a year ago with my poetics and its relation to hip-hop which was, in relationship speak, ‘we’re not talking but not cuz we’re mad, just cuz we got nuthin to say to each other.’

How’d it get that way? For one, I blame commercialized radio and the corporate music industry. Right before I left NYC, my apartment on Franklin Ave happened to be right above a $.99 store that insisted on playing Hot 97 all day long and their insistence became the defacto music in my crib on my days off. Now, if this was the Hot 97 of 1995, when they switched formats from dance to hip-hop, I don’t think I would have minded so much except—
1) The Hot 97 of 2005 was basically just the same six songs on repeat all day with the occasional old school track thrown in;
2) Their definition of “old school” was tracks from 2001.

Combine that with the fact that I hadn’t been properly clubbing for a few years, I was kinda broke so couldn’t really dig through CDs for non-radio rap, and you get a complete disconnect when it came to me and contemporary hip-hop.

The turning point came when I read Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. A scholarly look to the origins of the art form and some deeper analysis to the national political consciousness at key junctions in hip-hop history made me feel less of a crotchety old man and more of a witness to a cultural revolution.

Another touchstone was a bit more bizarre. In 1999, Liam Howlett of the British techo band The Prodigy released The Dirtchamber Sessions, Vol 1 a CD mix tape of founding break beats, old school hip-hop, 70s British punk, techno, and alternative. Hearing the party music of my youth jamming with more current tracks was an eclectic’s dream and I played the hell out of that CD.

So while hip-hop was at arm’s distance, it was still just within reach and it came back up to slap me in the face last year during NaPoWriMo. I thought I would spend the month writing invented prayers and expanding on the poetic track I was on with Heaven Below but that all changed when Barb let me know Malcolm McLaren had died. GURU passed away just a few weeks later and I felt the need to revisit my role as witness to hip-hop’s formation and expand it to documenter.

I’ve been working backwards ever since and been digging deeper into digital crates to find more break beats that eventually became the anthems we know today. The points of origin are as varied as the points of departure which is fitting for any true artform.

I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow and also sharing poems. If you want to listen along and chime in with questions, please do so.

If ya can’t, then here’s a little something extra. A digital mix tape of the music that helped me form To the Break of Dawn. Tracks 2-23 are what I hear in my head when I read the chapbook from beginning to end. The rest of the tracks are where my head goes when I think about hip-hop poetics. Track 1 serves as the true jump off, the song I heard almost non-stop through my youth as my dad, a college radio DJ, would blast Manu Dibango‘s “Soul Makossa” like if it was the truth. Which, even at the age of five, I knew it was.

CantoMundo Day 4: True Onda

Exhuasted. Seriously, the amount of conversation, poetry and activism from the last few days has me all spent which is a good thing. I feel like I’ve shaken off a lot of my personal insecurities and doubts about my poetry. Not the mechanics of my work but if my poetry can actually be more than just words that sound good from a stage. After the CantoMundo workshops and dialogue, I feel my work can have a longer reaching effect but only if I believe it.

It feels like I’ve done a good job with the public high points of the week but the real good news is the best is yet to come. I’m not sure exactly how and in what form but all the fellows and organizers are committed to coming back together next year and making it even better. Like good poetry critique, this meant we had to acknowledge things that could have gone better in this inaugural gathering. And like good critique, everything was said with positive intentions. All drama free. Yay!

Can ya tell I’m excited about being associated with this org and its mission? It’s been a minute since I’ve had this feeling. It’s happened less and less since I’ve decided that developing a poetry manuscript was my primary priority i my art life. CantoMundo has me feeling I can still keep my poetry in the forefront but also add a deeper commitment to reshaping how Latin@ Poetics are viewed by the public. Palabra.

CantoMundo Day 3: Real Talk

I’m up way too late typing this out but if I don’t do it now it might never come out.  So much positive information about not only being a Latino poet but also a reminder about the power of the word, community and friendship.

Today started with the fellows sharing a poem they wrote the night before.  Yes, CantoMundo bringin the new shit.  As a fan of first drafts I was really happy this developed and plan to keep it going on.

So why bring a first draft? Why not a poem in progress? How about just workshopping a nearly done poem?  For me, it revolves around trust and vulnerability.  We are all CantoMundo fellows, we all applied and were accepted on the strength of our work; we don’t need to prove anything.  But we can share in the process of building a poem and say the things we didn’t think we would say.  We can risk not being perfect in front of each other and celebrate that risk.  If we can’t do it amongst peers, then where are we gonna do it?

After the first draft readings, we met back up at to talk about Latin@ poetics, politics and everything in between.  It was honest and open with a broad number of topics put on the table.  No one seeking immediate answers but sharing out the things outside of poetry that we feel affect our writing.  Or, to put it bluntly, real talk.  I appreciated all the opinions and reflections and feel that getting all the things we normally talk about privately out into an open space built up a huge amount of respect in the room.  It also confirmed that CantoMundo has the potential to be more than just a workshop, it can be a place where we can initiate serious poetic activism.

Lunch followed and I was lucky enough to break bread with one of my literary heroes, Jimmy Santiago Baca.  Jimmy is super busy so I appreciated the time he spent with me, Barbara and (new CantoMundo friend) Luivette.  We are all fans of Jimmy’s work and it was great to share our appreciation for his work and his company.

Note to literature fans: Take the time to thank your literary idols. Even if its just a “I really liked your book” comment at a busy book signing.  Trust me, the artist appreciates it.  Word.

Back to work with CantoMundo and workshop with Martín Espada.  After a super informative reading of poems, we were sent off to work out the poetic idea and craft it into poem.  The work from all the fellows was top-notch and I got out a poem I’ve been meaning to write for a long time.  Good time.

On the reflection tip, I took a similar workshop with Martín about six years ago.  Back then, I was more interested in how I sounded and if I was projecting the right things in my poetry.  Now, I was more interested in how the people in my poem sounded and if I was honoring their history with my words.  It’s good to feel that poetic growth in me.

Next came Rigoberto González talking to us about the importance of community and individual activism.  Rigo talked the real talk as he went over how too many poets make the same mistakes over and over again, never learning from past mistakes.  Simple to the point and inspirational.  Rigo reminded us that there is never a community of one and either we pool our resources together or else we put ourselves in the dominant culture’s hands.

To cap off the day, Martin and Demetria had an open reading.  I’m happy to say the ‘burque folks came through and the place was packed.  Martín read classic, recent and brand new poems that show he is a master of reinvention.  Just when you think you got his poems figured out, Martín makes new leaps and takes serious risk to keep pushing himself farther.  Demetria also read a variety of work that highlighted the fact that the struggle is a long one, the system we are up against is massive and, in return, our poetry must be greater.

The real talk seems to be this:  You gotta make it happen.  Not tomorrow, or soon, or in a second; no, it has to happen in the right now.  The only way poetry can change the world is in the now, if the poetry is “near forming” then we risk the world “near change.”

Now I have to write  a new first draft for tomorrow. It’s gonna be tough but I’m willing to take the risk and share the real talk.

CantoMundo Day 2: Realization


CantoMundo 2010
Originally uploaded by OBermeo

Definition (1): an act of becoming fully aware of something as a fact

When I first heard I was accepted to CantoMundo I was the most surprised Latino in the room. Then I saw the names of the other fellows and thought I must be the luckiest dude ever because I saw names of writers who I have admired, writers with accomplishments, writers with degrees. In my mind, better writers.

I’m glad I shook that moment of self-deprecation pretty quickly and by the time I arrived in Albuquerque I knew I was ready and prepared. Luck didn’t get me here, hard work did. Luck didn’t fill out my application, I did. And if I was chosen it’s for a reason, probably the one I put down on the application essay.

Getting this kind of personal affirmation has been a process and I have to keep in mind that when I meet an author I admire, it’s ok to say you love their work. Saying it to them ten times over, maybe not so much. And when same author tells you that (s)he likes your work, accept the compliment. Don’t shrug it off. Don’t say away from your own success. Stay on the path to personal affirmation. Realize it.

I was sure of that coming into CantoMundo and after hearing guest speaker Toi Derricotte speak, I was doubly sure.  Toi’s recollection of the founding of Cave Canem, the first retreats, the highs and lows with both fellows and staff, the parallels with CantoMundo, and what the future may hold helped to cement my own place in this gathering.  It made me hopeful for the future, not because we know what’s happening next, actually, quite the opposite. The uncertain future is open to possibility and, with that, dread and fear because we don’t want to squander it.  Embrace the dread and you embrace an impossible future.  I like that.

Definition (2): the fulfillment or achievement of something desired or anticipated

My next act of realization involves my manuscript. If nothing else, CantoMundo has put me in a situation where I’ve agreed to send my manuscript to a respected author for feedback and critique, and also to a legitimate editor.

What happens next?  I don’t know.  I’ve been talking about sending my ms out with a query letter for months and haven’t done squat.  This is different.  I’ve converted a personal aspiration into a verbal realization, a big step for me.  I’m going to deliver, for sure, and see what the impossible future has in store for me.

On another note, the fellows open mic was tonight and it was pure bomba. A diverse group of styles dealing with a variety of viewpoints, a true American song of poetry.  I took video so you can see for yourself.  It won’t be anytime soon but when it’s ready, watch out.  Canto-Mundo. Canto-Mundo.