QEPD Miguel Algarín

Miguel Algarín (1941-2020)

One thing I can tell you is that every Nuyorican Poet I know has an outrageous Miguel Algarín story. Here is mine.

I was getting ready to plan for the one year anniversary of Acentos, our Bronx Latinx Poetry Series, and wanted to feature an iconic figure. One night I was hanging out late at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe for the open mic, which normally would start around 1am on a Friday night, when who happens to hit the stage but the founder himself, Miguel. I don’t know how exactly I got the nerve to ask him for his phone number or even how the conversation went but I got the digits. I called him up two days later to ask him to feature for Acentos. Now, if you know anything about Miguel, you know that he had one of the most distinctive voices in poetry. It was a sonic tone of full barrel chested revelry with a melodic hum in the background. No two ways about it, the man was a living djembe. So I call the number and that is the exact tone I hear saying, “Hallllloooo.” And I go, “Yes, I am calling to speak with Miguel.” And what do I get back? “Miguelllll eess not here right nooooowwww.” What? I was so flabbergasted that I actually played along, “When will Miguel be back?” Pause and then “Ohhhhh, I don’t knoooowww. Maaaayyybee later?” I say Thanks and hang up. I called back two minutes later, “Hallllloooo.” “Hi, Miguel! Great to hear your voice!” And than I was able to get him to come to feature for us.

Of course, there is a part two and part three to the story which is the case with most poet icons and getting them to feature but I will share those later. Maaaayyybee.

Hanging out with the Nuyorian Poets Cafe founder, December 2005.

Oh, Miguel. In twenty years of poetry I think I have only heard a few people who use their whole body to bring a poem to life. You may be the first who I ever saw do it on stage. I am so lucky to see you do it live at 1am in NYC’s most iconic poetry venue with maybe a dozen people around. To reach that level of poesia has always given me a goal that I may never reach. I think I have done it a few times for one or two lines. I felt the poem connect in my gut, pulse out the body in one slap of reverb, and then it’s gone. But I am still chasing it.

All the while I can see your face in your classic impish pose knowing so much about la palabra y la cultura. I am building up the nerve to ask you for more and all I can hear now is “Hallllloooo.” “Yes, I wish to speak with Miguel.” And what do I get back? “Miguelllll eess not here right nooooowwww.”

QEPD el profesor de la poesia de la gente. Miguel Algarín, presente!

Navigating Poetics in Workshop and in Design

Yesterday I read alongside the writers of Kearny Street Workshop’s Navigating Poetics workshop.  It was advertised as six weeks of generative writing led by Truong Tran but turned out to be much more.

I originally took the workshop because I have taken workshops with Truong before and knew him as a skilled facilitator who views poetry from multiple angles. He shares the perspectives of visual artists while also being able to slow the writing process down. Truong can pick out one phrase or feeling in a poem and have the writer do a deeper dive into those small spaces in poems. He has been a constant voice in my poems for years. Whenever I revise I always ask, “Is this whole poem as strong as the best two lines?”  When I ask that of my poems and go back to be sure that the whole poem is strong, that is Truong’s influence on my work,

With Shelter-in-Place remote learning is the norm and I was curious how Truong would be able to create a community of writing while also fostering the trust that is needed for writers to give each other constructive feedback. Fostering connection during a Zoom session can be a dissociative task at times and that connection is the main ingredient for successful writing groups.

At the end of the six weeks, I have five new poems which would already be a measure of success. I also have a new writing community and renewed sense of purpose and confidence in my writing.  And I walk away developing a new skill:  e-book design.

I have designed and crafted all my chapbooks.  If you happen to have one of my older chapbooks then please know that each one was put together by hand and is unique. I have always prided myself on making a book with beautiful art and clean type. Huge props to Timothy Vogel and Matt Weber who gave me permission to use their work as my title images.  This process was always fun for me as I was able to play around with the order of my poems and typefaces while also trying to keep some kind of style together.  It was also fun because the words I was playing with were my own.

Sometime in the middle of the Navigating Poetics class I became excited about the prospect of having these new poems published. I was also impressed with the high level of writing from the other Navigating Poetics writers so I proposed to Kearny Street Workshop that the writing from the workshop be published together as an online volume.  Huge thanks to Mihee Kim and Jason Bayani for saying Yes.

Kearny Street Workshop: Navigating Poetics is the e-book I designed. Before I was messing around with my own poems but this time I was making book art that would represent KSW and also honor the writing of my workshop cohort.  I am proud of the finished product. It has intention and voice. There was also a ton of behind-the-scenes collaboration and last minute edits but it came together well, on time, and clean.  I hope you enjoy all the poems and if you feel moved, go to Goodreads and give it a review.  

Reading: KSW’s Navigating Poetics Student Reading

Navigating Poetics
Monday, July 20, 2020
6:00 PM – 8:00 PM PDT
Free Zoom Event
Register through Eventbrite

Kearny Street Workshop’s “Navigating Poetics” class, taught by poet and visual artist Truong Tran, is hosting a final student reading to showcase their work!

This six-week class centered around the simple yet elusive question: “How do we make art in times like these?”

Featured Readers: Ravi Chandra, Juliana Chang, An Huynh, Maggie Lam, Bobby Lu, Philana Woo, Marygrace Burns, Oscar Bermeo, Charlyne Sarmiento, Johnny Huy Nguyen, Mirah Lucas, An Bùi, Santisia Ambrosino, Shizue Seigel, Diana Diaz-Noriega, Kris Adhikari.

This is a FREE remote poetry event. Please register at Eventbrite for free ticket and log-in information.

Reading: Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I knew enough about adults to know that if I did tell them what had happened, I would not be believed. Adults rarely seemed to believe me when I told the truth anyway. Why would the believe me about something so unlikely?

— Neil Gaiman

I’m about to go in on some work summer reading. It’s going to be a mix of professional development leadership texts as well as a good amount of culturally responsive teaching books with an emphasis on anti-racist work. I am excited to get back into my constant learner mode as that takes my mind to an open space of listening, absorbing, and contextualization.

I gotta tell you, it’s going to be a challenge. I find it hard to focus on prose or dense text. My natural inclination to poetry and graphic novels mirrors my tendencies to go in deeper with a condensed text or image over going broad.

My current plan will be to mix it up with a poetry collection in between to see if bridging these two forms of lit can keep me on track.

For now, I share one of many highlights from Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I have been a fan of Gaiman’s work since his days of writing for DC’s Vertigo line. In fact, Sandman: Season of Mists was the first graphic novel collection I ever purchased. Gaiman has a way of writing myths and memories in direct language while still maintaining a sense of the fantastic.

This all brings me back when my mom passed away when I was thirteen. It was a few months after her passing that I heard whistling in the hallways for weeks after. I recall that no one else heard it in the house but me. I would be studying and all of a sudden this specific whistling would happen and no one else responded. So I would just pretend that I was going to throw some trash out and then hang out in the project hallways waiting for the whistling. I would randomly start whistling back and hear an echo that came from a new place. It was coming from the stairs and that is where I went because I knew for a fact it was my mom. I am not sure what she was trying to say to me. I remember waiting for a while to try to figure that out. Sitting in the stairs listening. Maybe that is when the whistling stopped. When I tried to make sense of it. I think now that all my mom wanted was just to have me to herself.

On CantoMundo and Action Steps

Poem written at first CantoMundo retreat.

I have deleted CantoMundo from my main bio and in the future will not be including it in any of my bios because of the lack of action by the CantoMundo leadership regarding their initiatives regarding inclusion of Afro-Latinx voices.

I recognize the announcement CantoMundo made recently regarding Black Lives Matter and some of their action steps. I was also in a forum with other CantoMundistas giving feedback on that announcement. The actions detailed would be positive and necessary steps for Poets of Color in the United States and especially for Afro-Latinx writers.

I also feel that the statement in itself is just a starting point and that the follow up, if any, is happening in closed spaces. This act of centralizing power and a  delay of action aligns more closely with practices of White Dominant Culture than CantoMundo’s statement of “latinidades in conversation with each other… representing diverse poetic styles and heritages.”

I hope that CantoMundo, as an organization, strives to be more transparent and inclusive around their actions to support Black Lives Matter and other issues in solidarity with Black and Brown writers.

The issue of transparency and inclusion is the reason I am making this statement public. I believe deeply that writers of color have an important and necessary role in positive change making and shifts in public policy to better serve our communities of color.  This change will not happen in silence or by simply deleting/muting/unfriending an account or contradictory opinion. Poets have power in their choice of words, venue, and affiliation.  Just as we come to these spaces with intention to be heard, we should also come with the mandate to listen. Right now, I am not hearing very much from CantoMundo.

All poets are political. We are political by our noise and by our silence. I do not regard the label “political” as especially helpful in determining what is going to happen in the poems. When a poet writes racist poetry, she is being political. When a poet writes about trees, he is being political both by what he chooses to write about and what he chooses not to write about.

— Kwame Dawes

In 2010 I got word of an opportunity to attend a weekend-long workshop with Martín Espada in Albuquerque. I was excited for this chance to share space with one of my poetic heroes and inspirations. I was also eager to return to ‘Burque, the site of the 2005 National Poetry Slam, a place where I said goodbye to Slam Poetry in the presence of the Acentos, louderARTS, Bowery, Nuyorican, and a host of other members of the Slam family.

I applied and was accepted as one of the inaugural CantoMundo fellows. The course of that first weekend was exciting and also challenging as that same weekend, the killer of Oscar Grant was publicly exonerated and the streets of Oakland responded with anger.  Righteous anger over the system letting the police kill Oscar Grant with no justice for the Grant family or for Black Oakland. The subsequent demonstrations across the United States and the spotlight of the medis did not change that outcome for the Grant family.  I felt attached and detached from my community in Oakland but was thankful for the company of writers of color especially Latinx poetas.

From there I have made some enduring friendships thanks to CantoMundo. My third retreat coincided with the painful death of a Bronx poeta and I was held and supported by CantoMundistas. This is the solidarity and love that I will hold on to and share first and foremost when speaking of CantoMundo. 

I want to thank Deborah Paradez and Celeste Guzman Mendoza as two of the founders of CantoMundo who always emanated a sense of compassion, integrity, and professionalism in every interaction I had with them.  They both made me feel instantly at home even though I rarely feel welcome in spaces of competitive poetry even after being “accepted.”  I will again emphasize their balance of holding both the relational and technical aspects of co-designing and implementing a poetry retreat. They both did so with a high level of grace, humor, and joy.

Deborah and Celeste were not the only organizers but they were the ones who spent the most time getting to know me as a person and hearing my warm/cool feedback on the retreats.  Shouts and love to all other organizers and especially every poeta who I was able to laugh with and who shared their words with me.

My deepest hope is that CantoMundo can be a beacon of inclusivity for Afro-Latinx and all writers in Latinidad. I will support any public action that moves CantoMundo into a place of open words and shared dialogue pa todos.