I Speak of the City: Pedro Pietri

Puerto Rican Obituary
Originally uploaded
by OBermeo

A few months back Barbara found a near-mint copy of Puerto Rican Obituary at the San Francisco Public Library’s used book bin for $3. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I held on to the copy for quite a bit of time before bringing it to the counter as if I was waiting for someone to come by and snatch it away.  “Excuse me, sir, the book you’re holding in your hands is much more valuable than three dollars.”

Cuz if that did happen, I would have been forced to agree with them and give back the book. But once I actually paid for it? Different story, broski.

“Excuse me, sir.”

‘No, you excuse yourself, papa.  I know exactly what I got in my hands and you best believe it’s worth more than three bucks but I already paid for it and unless you’re willing to argue the merits of quid-pro-quo in an open market economy in civil court… step off!’

Or I would’ve run like the wind with the book under my arm yelling ‘Catch me if you can’ like a homeboy gingerbread man.

Either way, the book is now in the happy confines of the Sexy Loft Library alongside some other great used book bin finds.  And on days like today, Pietri’s birthday, I can flip through it (gently) and find a great gem of a poem like “Unemployment.”  A poem as true today as it was nearly forty years ago.  The colors, the scenery, the details; all so specific.  No ambiguity.  Nothing coy.  The thing, the idea, the person, the City, the sentiment; all at the forefront so the poem can continue speaking for the poet who saw it all.


he gets on the train
at 125th street
and st nickalaus avenue
white shirt black tie
gray suit shoes shine
new york times help
wanted ads under his arm
his hair is neatly
process his wristwatch
does not function
the diamondless ring
he wears costs five dollars
on the block after
all the stores
close down for the day
on the train he takes
out his wallet & counts
500 imaginary dollars
after 59th street
came 42nd street & 8th avenue
& he gets out the train
& walks to the nearest
vending machine
& deposits a nickel
for a pack of dentine
& stares into the broken mirror
of the vending machine
for the next fifteen minutes
assuring himself
that he is looking good
and then he proceeds
to the employment
agencies and five
hours and three
hot dogs and two
hamburgers one pack
of cigarettes and
one pint of wine later
he is still homeless

© Pedro Pietri
from Puerto RIcan Obituary (Monthly Review Press, 1973)

Love Poem For My People

Originally uploaded by Pro-Zak

It’s time to fall back in love with poetry. If you haven’t guessed by my lack of updates, I’m currently in a rocky relationship with my poetry. I keep looking at my work and feeling distant from it wondering what I have to do to get it alive and kicking again. Luckily, I have a couple of live readings coming up and nothing makes me more excited about the wonder of poetry than a live reading. My goal is to have at least one extended piece memorized and then also have a cover poem I can recite from off the dome. The fact that I’ll be reading for PAWA’s Arkipelago Reading Series makes me think about Manong Al Robles and how his poetic storytelling instantly raptured the Bayanihan Center. And thinking of Al always brings me back to Rev Pedro Pietri, how his poems/stories/dialogues/chismes/plays would blend in and out of each other with ease. How the live audience was the sole concern and how far away things like conferences, panels, debates and politics seemed when he got to the nitty-gritty of poetry. I make it sound like I got to hear Pedro read a ton of times and the truth is I only got to hear him once but that’s all it took and now I get to read him a lot and am grateful his work is captured in print. (Some hard to get print, for sure, but it’s out there if ya look.) Which brings up quite the conflict—I have two voices in my head, Rev Pedro and Manong Al, both who lived their poetry and had little concern for publication but the way I know most of their work is from publication. Ain’t dat a bitch? To be caught in the middle of this intersection of orality and print with both traffic lights saying GO at the same time? But that’s what makes it exciting! To run into the middle of that mess and not worry about who is saying to wait and who is saying to keep on, to trust my own instincts and do the thing because I need to do the thing. And do it all with love, for me, for my poetry, and for my people.

Love Poem For My People
by Pedro Pietri

do not let artificial lamps
make strange shadows out of you
do not dream
if you want your dreams
to come true
you knew how to sing
before you was issued a birth certificate

turn off the stereo
this country gave you
it is out of order
your breath is your promised land
if you want to feel very rich
look at your hands
that is where
the definition of magic
is located at

Follow up to Writing Assignment #1

This may not be the question I want to ask the world but in my life the world hasn’t been that big a concern. Which is to say I identify myself more in urban terms than in national or ethnic terms. Enough with the intro, let’s do this poem thing-

I’m Jus Askin
After Huu Thinh’s “Asking”

[Poem was here. Can now be found at spindlezine.com]

Three poems by Huu Thinh (including “Asking”) can be found here

Yo No Soy Yo

I am not I.
I am the one
Who walks beside me without me noticing;
Who, sometimes, I go to visit,
And who, sometimes, I forget.
The one who is silent, still, when I speak,
The one who forgives, kindly, when I hate,
The one who travels where I have never been,
The one who will keep walking when I have died.

– Poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez. Translation by Oscar Bermeo.

And that’s my first attempt at poetic translation. It’s not perfect – the third line is probably the hardest one to nail down – but you gotta start somewhere and this poem is as good a place as any considering the fine article Rachel Zucker has on Confessional Poetry. For me, the article really gets rolling towards the end since the beginning part of it has Ms Zucker going off on bad confessional poetry which almost turned me off since (cue the broad generalization theme music) everyone hates bad poetry. We all hate bad performance poetry, bad page poetry, bad lyrical poetry, bad protest poetry, bad published poetry, bad slam poetry, and on and on.

Mind you, it is easier to hate a poem whose merit is subjective over a poem whose merit is based on at least some tangible measure. Which brings us back to confessional poetry (and its cousin, political protest poetry) and the fact that far too often, the writer puts the audience on a very tenuous precipice- if you love the work then you are validating me as a writer but if you don’t like the work then you are invalidating my life experience.

At best, the above ultimatum comes from an insecure writer who is trying to make solid connections with an audience and resorts to their concrete point-of-views as a place to forge a connection. At worst, we have an egotistical ranter who is trying to force a simple solution on a complicated issue (Our kids need better teachers! The ghetto needs more government services! Cops are animals! War is wrong!) to a room full of sheep who are looking for someone to speak for them. Somewhere in the middle, you will find a whole bunch of folks who have a story and the desire to share that story to a listener who will pay them some mind and acknowledge it as a poem.

As for me, I’m just looking for good poems and my experience says most good poems are the product of editing which is one place the I needs to go to the curb for a minute. At least that’s the way I am interpreting Jimenez’s poem and a practice I need to continue brining to my own writing.

Yo no soy yo.
Soy este
que va a mi lado sin yo verlo;
que, a veces, voy a ver,
y que, a veces, olvido.
El que calla, sereno, cuando hablo,
El que perdona, dulce, cuando odio,
el que pasea por donde no estoy,
el que quedará en pie cuando yo muera.
Juan Ramón Jiménez