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

the house pietri built

the house pietri built
Originally uploaded by oscarb.

ultra sad moment: during a friday night slam, feature poet tish benson offers all the proceeds to any books she sells that night towards the fund to help the ailing reverend pedro pietri. (silence in the room)

who’s pedro pietri?, asks one honest audience members and 200 other heads start nodding their heads equally in the dark. its kinda hard to use the word ignorant for these matter being that the nuyo does ZILCH to promote its history unless tragedy is involved.

fast forward a year and a half later. the reverend has passed away and now the cafe is adorned with various images in celebration and honor of his life and poetry as a saturday night hip-hop show is on as a rapper points to the art.
big ups to piñero!

the more things change.

big time confession: one of my deepest regrets as a curator was not getting pietri to feature at acentos. i am not sure if his health was already failing when i first (very very briefly) met him but he had just done one feature. well, who knows now. the history of booking acentos is very much like a six foot high game of jenga, if one feature never appeared it could throw off the whole thing and (for the most part) the whole thing has worked pretty damn well. part of the reason i didnt book pietri was cuz i was one of the ignorant mofos who didnt have a good understanding of the man and his legacy.

while much of the early nuyorican history remains in dispute and disarray, one thing remains clear. pietri was a universally loved and respected poet. a rabble rouser and non-conformist. a visionary. his blend of theatrics with poetics is the blueprint of what years later would be organized into slam. safe sex was a phrase birthed in the mid 80s but pietri was advocating the use of condoms way before the AIDS epidemic became news.

a mentor to many, he opened his home and his ears to a good number of poets. just a nod from pietri was almost enough to give you legit ‘nuyorican poet’ status.

looking at the thirty foot jenga puzzle that is my life- every day i grow to love my mistakes and thank my friends and fam for helping me through some of the more treacherous passings. lately, i’ve been feeling like i am starting to live up to what i was created for. and i know it wasnt to ring up sales, generate invoices, maintain inventory, deal with the subway, get my car out of the pound, argue with people, pick fights, wake up, shower, breathe… nah. these things are just the warm up to what i am supposed to be doing. “dont ask me where i am going/but im pretty sure im supposed to be here” was something i wrote once and that image gets clearer and clearer all the time.

now before you go outside and grab some sun. read this:

Puerto Rican Obituary by the Reverend Pedro Pietri

They worked
They were always on time
They were never late
They never spoke back
when they were insulted
They worked
They never took days off
that were not on the calendar
They never went on strike
without permission
They worked
ten days a week
and were only paid for five
They worked
They worked
They worked
and they died
They died broke
They died owing
They died never knowing
what the front entrance
of the first national city bank looks like

All died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
passing their bill collectors
on to the next of kin
All died
waiting for the garden of eden
to open up again
under a new management
All died
dreaming about america
waking them up in the middle of the night
screaming: Mira Mira
your name is on the winning lottery ticket
for one hundred thousand dollars
All died
hating the grocery stores
that sold them make-believe steak
and bullet-proof rice and beans
All died waiting dreaming and hating

Dead Puerto Ricans
Who never knew they were Puerto Ricans
Who never took a coffee break
from the ten commandments
the landlords of their cracked skulls
and communicate with their latino souls

From the nervous breakdown streets
where the mice live like millionaires
and the people do not live at all
are dead and were never alive

died waiting for his number to hit
died waiting for the welfare check
to come and go and come again
died waiting for her ten children
to grow up and work
so she could quit working
died waiting for a five dollar raise
died waiting for his supervisor to drop dead
so he could get a promotion

Is a long ride
from Spanish Harlem
to long island cemetery
where they were buried
First the train
and then the bus
and the cold cuts for lunch
and the flowers
that will be stolen
when visiting hours are over
Is very expensive
Is very expensive
But they understand
Their parents understood
Is a long non-profit ride
from Spanish Harlem
to long~sland cemetery

All died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
Dreaming about queens
Clean-cut lily-white neighborhood
Puerto Ricanless scene
Thirty-thousand-dollar home
The first spics on the block
Proud to belong to a community
of gringos who want them lynched
Proud to be a long distance away
from the sacred phrase: Que Pasa

These dreams
These empty dreams
from the make-believe bedrooms
their parents left them
are the after-effects
of television programs
about the ideal
white american family
with black maids
and latino janitors
who are well train
to make everyone
and their bill collectors
laugh at them
and the people they represent

died dreaming about a new car
died dreaming about new anti-poverty programs
died dreaming about a trip to Puerto Rico
died dreaming about real jewelry
died dreaming about the irish sweepstakes

They all died
like a hero sandwich dies
in the garment district
at twelve o’clock in the afternoon
social security number to ashes
union dues to dust

They knew
they were born to weep
and keep the morticians employed
as long as they pledge allegiance
to the flag that wants them destroyed
They saw their names listed
in the telephone directory of destruction
They were train to turn
the other cheek by newspapers
that mispelled mispronounced
and misunderstood their names
and celebrated when death came
and stole their final laundry ticket

They were born dead
and they died dead

Is time
to visit sister lopez again
the number one healer
and fortune card dealer
in Spanish Harlem
She can communicate
with your late relatives
for a reasonable fee
Good news is guaranteed

Rise Table Rise Table
death is not dumb and disable
Those who love you want to know
the correct number to play
Let them know this right away
Rise Table Rise Table
death is not dumb and disable
Now that your problems are over
and the world is off your shoulders
help those who you left behind
find financial peace of mind

Rise Table Rise Table
death is not dumb and disable
If the right number we hit
all our problems will split
and we will visit your grave
on every legal holiday
Those who love you want to know
the correct number to play
Let them know this right away
We know your spirit is able
Death is not dumb and disable

All died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
Hating fighting and stealing
broken windows from each other
Practicing a religion without a roof
The old testament
The new testament
according to the gospel
of the internal revenue
the judge and jury and executioner
protector and eternal bill collector

Secondhand shit for sale
Learn how to say Como Esta Usted
and you will make a fortune
They are dead
They are dead
and will not return from the dead
until they stop neglecting
the art of their dialogue
for broken english lessons
to impress the mister goldsteins
who keep them employed
as lavaplatos porters messenger boys
factory workers maids stock clerks
shipping clerks assistant mailroom
assistant, assisant assistant
to the assistant’s assistant
assistant lavaplatos and automatic
artificial smiling doormen
for the lowest wages of the ages
and rages when you demand a raise
because is against the company policy

died hating Miguel because Miguel’s
used car was in better running condition
than his used car
died hating Milagros because Milagros
had a color television set
and he could not afford one yet
died hating Olga because Olga
made five dollars more on the same job
died hating Manuel because Manuel
had hit the numbers more times
than she had hit the numbers
died hating all of them
and Olga
because they all spoke broken english
more fluently than he did

And now they are together
in the main lobby of the void
Addicted to silence
Off limits to the wind
Confine to worm supremacy
in long island cemetery
This is the groovy hereafter
the protestant collection box
was talking so loud and proud about

Here lies Juan
Here lies Miguel
Here lies Milagros
Here lies Olga
Here lies Manuel
who died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
Always broke
Always owing
Never knowing
that they are beautiful people
Never knowing
the geography of their complexion


If only they
had turned off the television
and tune into their own imaginations
If only they
had used the white supremacy bibles
for toilet paper purpose
and make their latino souls
the only religion of their race
If only they
had return to the definition of the sun
after the first mental snowstorm
on the summer of their senses
If only they
had kept their eyes open
at the funeral of their fellow employees
who came to this country to make a fortune
and were buried without underwears

will right now be doing their own thing
where beautiful people sing
and dance and work together
where the wind is a stranger
to miserable weather conditions
where you do not need a dictionary
to communicate with your people
Aqui Se Habla Espanol all the time
Aqui you salute your flag first
Aqui there are no dial soap commericals
Aqui everybody smells good
Aqui tv dinners do not have a future
Aqui the men and women admire desire
and never get tired of each other
Aqui Que Paso Power is what’s happening
Aqui to be called negrito
means to be called LOVE

© Reverend Pedro Pietri

better late than never

here is the set list and some notes from the words: hip-hop & poetry showcase at the nuyorican from a few weeks back.

with only a day and a hlf till worcester the set list is coming along nicely. it will be a combo of the january louderMONDAYS feature, the set i busted out at spoken words cafe and this set. i have a theme in mind but need one more poem to really flesh that out. more on the theme in the after-worcester rap up.

Mercy on the Battlefield
-not only is it the old standby but it was SPECIFICALLY requested by rocky, the dj at the nuyo/curator for Words. this piece was getting rehearsed and thrown around before there was a synonymUS. no real need to rehash it.
urban air guitar
-a newer piece that appears in my chapbook which is partially based on peeking in at jai & elana eating together. we used a combo of the 505 and electric guitar to bring it to life. the guitar chords gave me some nice space to let the poem rest at certain spots. my voice also got a chance to break out of its normal rhythms. we must have practiced this piece about 5 times before we got it down.
-i asked ray for only electric guitar on this. actually, i would have preferred to go with acoustic guitar and bongos but i can only ask him to bring so much equipment. after doing it a few times, rich suggested omitting a line from the poem- a wise edit that will stick around. prior to this rehearsal, i’ve only nailed the final CAPICU! once, the night the poem debuted at 13. this time around i think i have found a consistent trigger to get that part down.
Sorta Rican
-we start with the 505 “haulting that jibaro tongue” in a way i never knew it could. we went straight for the sound of the busy bodega and nailed it. part 2 has us back in electric guitar land and me finding a sadness in my voice that was always there but never came out right. part 3 brings us back to the block party but some funky D-Beam action implodes la musica just as my vew of the world shifts and then finds clarity in the strings of a Fender.

okey doke. thats that. still want to get out ONE more new poem for tony brown and the java hut. wish me luck.