Verbs on Asphalt-The History of Slam at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe

It’s good to see the Nuyorican taking a step forward and archiving their timeline. I’m hesitant to say “history” because my quick glance through the site highlights the players and not the controversies. (For some details on the behind-the-scene drama in the Nuyorican Slam history, you can check out Cristin O’Keefe Aptowitz’s Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam.)

It is great to see shout-outs and proper acknowledgment going out to all the staff and the hosts of the slams. Hosting and curating can be a thankless and menial task that is never as sexy as being the spotlight poet, so it is great to see folks who put in the work and late hours (The Nuyo Open Mic doesn’t start till at least one in the morning) get some proper due.

This archive is also a great place for critics–and overzealous defenders–of slam to go and see what slam in action (Video), its historical impact (Press), terminology (Glossary), and what Nuyorican slam seeks to become (Artistic Sensibility). What is lacking is some poetic text to go along with all this other media.

As the Nuyo looks accurately on its past, I hope it can also move on into the future. Daniel Gallant, the new executive director of the Cafe, is “pursuing funding to renovate the building’s upper floors to create additional classroom and performance space and to create a multimedia lab to videotape shows,” which would be great for the Cafe, the neighborhood, and the poetry community.

And much better news than the fact that the first new title to come out of Nuyorican Press, the Cafe’s poetry imprint, will be a collection from the Cafe’s own Board Chair, Carlton Spicer. This type of internal nepotism is another example of the Cafe’s fierce support of any poetries they can claim as their own over the avant-garde that helped the Cafe establish its initial reputation as, what Allan Ginsberg once called, “the most integrated place in the world.”

Verbs on Asphalt: The History of Slam at Nuyorican Poets Cafe

Verbal Overview: 2008

Once upon a time, there was no place to see a Poetry Slam in New York City unless you were on the Lower East Side and you happened to end up at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on East Third Street (now named “Rev. Pedro Pietri Way”, after a Nuyorican Founding Poet). All other New York Slams originated here, which is one of the key reasons that this particular Slam was so influential. In fact, in 1989, when the Nuyorican held its first Slam, there were probably only a handful of places in the entire world where Poetry Slam existed at all. Things have really changed.

When Poetry Slam began at the Nuyorican, it was an inclusive form; a generous space for new ideas and poetic sounds to flourish and grow. A wide variety of artists came through in those early days – many who would no longer think of themselves as “Slam Poets” today and many who never considered themselves Slam Poets in the first place. Everything we now think of as Poetry Slam was yet to be discovered at that point, and these performers and writers were at the edge of the form. It was an exciting time to be around! I realised the significance of their important contributions as I have witnessed Poetry Slam become more “predictable” and formulaic over the years.

. . .

Before We Begin (Scope and Goals of Project)

To avoid any possible confusion, please note some important facts about this project:

1. This is NOT a history of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
That, my dear poets and friends, is a job that awaits even more intrepid souls. That history encompasses the roots of a tradition whose influence has extended so far and wide, across continents and languages, that I dare not attempt it and not do it well. If you are a Nuyorican Founding poet, or you are in “Aloud”, you are part of the history of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, but that’s a different story to tell. The Cafe is much older than the Poetry Slam (The Cafe celebrated its 30th year in 2003) and the rich artistic history of the Cafe includes theater, music, video and visual art.

2. This is also NOT a history of Poetry Slam.
As you all know by now, Marc Smith, a poet and construction worker in Chicago, is credited with starting the thing, and now it’s a global phenomenon. Thousands of names and beautiful voices all, and parts of that history have been attempted already in print and film, by other brave documentarians, god bless them.

3. This is simply the history of Poetry Slam at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe
…the original home for Slam in New York City. I feel it is possibly one of the most crucial and important ones to tell. It spans over eighteen years and began here with Bob Holman circa 1989. And it flourishes today with a scene bigger than (probably) anyone ever imagined 20 years ago.

4. The information here is accurate but possibly not perfect
How accurate is it? Pretty damn near. I have kept Nuyorican Poetry Slam records, quite accurately, from 1997 on and I began a Poetry Slam “identity” program in 1998. Would I have liked to include every Slammer that ever competed throughout the years or every mystical Open Room poet that graced our ears? Of course! Could I? Not in this life.

Clare Ultimo

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  1. Carlton Spiller’s book has been out for a while on the Nuyorican imprint. It won an American Book Award.

    The first NEW book out on Nuyorican Press is by Herb Lowrey, who conducted workshops with Jimmy Santiago Baca.

    Either way, I think your point about the internal nepotism of the Nuyorican Press is still well-taken.

    BNN in your inbox.


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