mucho thanks to ms caitlin johnson for putting together this story…
In the borough that gave birth to hip hop, poetry has been steeling the limelight these days. But this is not Samuel Coleridge’s poetry, or even Langston Hughes’s. This poetry comes from the Bronx and it was made for the people who live there.
"It’s a great time to be an artist in the Bronx," said one of the borough’s rising stars, Oscar Bermeo. "(We’re) keeping a lot of poetry in the Bronx, and displaying pride in where we live. Art will always flourish on Fifth Ave. It is more of a challenge, more rewarding to keep it where you grew up."
The foundation for Bermeo’s generation of poets was laid more than forty years ago by the creators of hip-hop and the Nuyorican poets. Young Bronx poets blend these traditions with their original styles. The result is a kind of poetry where theatrics and presentation is an important in conveying the message.
"It’s coming out of hip-hop," said Claude Grant, a poet and director of administration at Bronx Community College. "There are things that each generation does with culture that allows them to own it. Nowadays it is more important for a poet to be able to read their poem."
Hip-hop began in the Bronx in the 70’s when black and Latino teenagers discovered how to scratch records, break dance and rap. Several years earlier, many Bronx poets of Puerto Rican descent like Americo Casiano and Jose Angel Figueroa of were instrumental in starting the Nuyorican poetry movement. They wrote about social injustice, racism and poverty as well as their culture and universal human experiences, Figueroa said.
Bermeo, a leader of the newest vanguard, recently won the BRIO (Bronx Recognizes Its Own) award for his work as a teaching artist and poet. Bermeo is a member of LouderARTS, a nonprofit group that encourages poetry within the community. The 6-year-old group offers open mic nights at Manhattan venues like Bar 13.
Now, every second and fourth Tuesday of the month, the group gathers at famed poetry bar Blue Ox, at 139th St. in the Bronx, for "Acentos," a Latino poetry night.
"We’d like to be thought of as the rebirth of poetry in the Bronx," said Rich Villar, 26, who travels from Rockland County to collaborate with Bermeo and other artists. "I’d like to be thought of as a reversal of the trend of a large vast wasteland of ghetto town."
Because of things like open mic nights sponsored by the Bronx Museum of Art and a writer’s center at the Bronx Council on the Arts, poetry has spread from Hunts point to Highbridge.
Today’s poets act out their poems and intone their emotions, drawing the audience in. At an open mic night at the Bronx museum last month, they snapped their fingers and played the bongos.
David Roberts, or D-Black’s voice boomed through the room that mid September night. "No more songs about fight the power and talking about revolution. Not it’s all about the Benjamins Baby and crack sale distribution," he said. His gestures mirrored the anger in his frustration in his voice as he lamented the commercialization of hip-hop.
Bermeo’s poems drift back and forth between English and Spanish and he writes about food, love, language and community. In Bermeo’s poem Sorta-Rican, after he explains to Juan, the friendly bodega owner that he is not from "la isla," Puerto Rico. In response, Juan asks, "Then tell me, how is Mexico this time of year?"
Bermeo’s poems are always about his experience—either as an Ecuadorian feeling outnumbered in a land of Puerto Ricans or as a Latino male growing up in a borough ravaged by drugs and crime. Like the Nuyoricans, he constantly searches for a way to make his experience universal by embracing his community’s way of life.
His poem The New York Times Finally Go It Right When They Took the 'R' Out of My "A'ight" succinctly describes why he and his contemporaries use slang in their work. "Iambic pentameter does not lend itself to fire escapes," is its only line.
The new style is vibrant, edgy and accessible and appeals to young people, like the 16-year-old Bronx poet Jasmine Morales. When she recites her piece Black Borriqua, a poem about her African-American and Puerto Rican heritage, she sounds suspiciously like a rapper.
"Got the Spanish eyes with the nappy black hair," she said while gesturing sassily to the snappy rhythm.
No longer does poetry belong to distant white men like T.S. Elliot and Walt Whitman, and it helps spark an interest in all things literary, Casiano said.
"The methodology they use is a little different," said Casiano, a featured poet in Russell Simmons Def Jam Poetry anthology. "They want to manifest it and they want to do it their way. Whatever helps the word helps me."