#NationalPoetryMonth 17/30

Shopping bags, pulverized by branches, contort into a new
nation of black flags. Our block was our island.

— from “We Used to Call it Puerto Rico Rain”

Today’s read: The Crazy Bunch by Willie Perdomo – Penguin Books – 2019

It has been a pleasure to read varied poetry collections that have taken me to some unexpected places. Today, I decided that I wanted to return back to New York. And not just NYC but the barrio of my teenage years. So I took a ride on the #4 train from Mt Eden Ave down to 125th St via The Crazy Bunch.

Even fifteen years in Oakland and I still feel like I am taking that subway ride every morning. I have so much Bronx in my speech and approach that it comes through both in English and Spanish. Mexicans routinely mistake me for Puerto Rican. Anglos often imagine that I am Italian-American and by that they really mean that I must be a New Yorker but they can’t quite figure out what to do about my light skin tone.

In this collection, I don’t need to worry about that. I can walk through as a visitor from Uptown. I can get off by Lexington Ave and be sure to walk down with the supermarket to left because if I start heading in the direction of the Mickey D’s then I may not find my way. You definitely don’t head down the direction of the Metro North because it”s the 80s and every other empty door is a crack house.

You follow Lexington and watch the street numbers go down and the street narrow until you find my favorite tostones across the street from the museum that looks like a school but there is a real school down two more blocks but not the best habichuelas but not-so-good is still better than anywhere else.

This is how you navigate this island in the middle of an island. You go by memory and swear to the legitness of your experience without the need for rubrics. Though I do know that any time I visited El Barrio I was doing exactly that just walking through and hearing project whistling in the background knowing it wasn’t my business.

#NationalPoetryMonth Day 16/30

Once we leave a place it is there

— from “And Sing We”

Today’s read: Under Flag by Myung Mi Kim – Kelsey St. Press, 1991

When I go to poetry readings I am always listening for variance in tone, diction, pace of the spoken word. When this combination happens then my next thought is to wonder how this looks on the page. I imagine poets as musicians who follow the sheet music of the page to let their voices be an orchestra.

Under Flag is full of space for the lines of poetry to breath. This also gave me a chance to respond to some of the stanza blocks. The place this collection brought me to was that space of migration I have questioned before.

Why was I migrated?

Is it ok to be disappointed in migration?

Is it ok to be disappointed in my parents for migrating me?

I am not going to get these answers from any one poem or collection of poems. But a good collection that knows how to work silence and space as a poetic tool can begin a ritual of asking and then leave you to a find a place to practice waiting.

#NationalPoetryMonth 15/30

The children are dead already. We are killing them,
that is what America should be saying;
on TV, in the streets, in offices, should be saying,
“We aren’t giving the children a chance to live.”

Mexicans are taking our jobs, they say instead.
What they really say is, let them die,
and the children too.

— from “So Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans”

Today’s read: Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems by Jimmy Santiago Baca – New Directions Publishing – 1990

The last time I read this collection was in 2010 during the activism protesting Arizona’s SB 1070.

‘Senate Bill 1070 was passed by the (Arizona) Legislature and signed into law by (Gov) Brewer in April. It made it a state crime to be in the country illegally and stated that an officer engaged in a lawful stop, detention or arrest shall, when practicable, ask about a person’s legal status when reasonable suspicion exists that the person is in the U.S. illegally.’

There was incredible fear that this law would erase any brown person’s civil rights in Arizona. To date, the law still stands. There have been challenges and interpretations but it stands.

I am still shaken by how this poem predicated SB1070 and then summarized the 45th President’s entire campaign statement.

Even on TV, an asthmatic leader
crawls turtle heavy, leaning on an assistant,
and from a nest of wrinkles on his face,
a tongue paddles through flashing waves
of lightbulbs, of cameramen, rasping
“They’re taking our jobs away.”

The most disturbing part is how the poem’s last stanza warned about the persecution that would come to the children of Mexican immigrants. It’s a line so jarring that I couldn’t shake it after I initially read it.

It was in August 2001. A few weeks later, the Twin Towers would fall and New York would go in lock down. Everything felt like a disaster movie and that we had experienced the lowest point in the nation’s history. Back then, there was still toilet paper and you could walk the Bronx in quiet. We didn’t think this would happen again or that it could feel worse. We didn’t.

#NationalPoetryMonth 4/30

Today’s read: Poems by Roque Dalton (Translated by Richard Schaaf) – Curbstone Press – 1984

It’s cliche but my favorite line was definitely “poetry is, like bread, for everyone.” Re-reading these poems in the time of both the 45th President and during the pandemic gives me a new perspective on this line. Is poetry for everyone? I always assumed Yes but in a society with empty shelves and not enough medical equipment then you have to wonder.

Another unexpected find was the introductory epistle. Poetry has been a bridge to so many places for me and I have always been grateful. This poem makes me wonder how I can articulate that gratitude.

Poems by Roque Dalton

Bring the Noise

I’m getting ready for my spot this afternoon on the KWMR’s Rhythm and Muse talk show and thinking about where I was about a year ago with my poetics and its relation to hip-hop which was, in relationship speak, ‘we’re not talking but not cuz we’re mad, just cuz we got nuthin to say to each other.’

How’d it get that way? For one, I blame commercialized radio and the corporate music industry. Right before I left NYC, my apartment on Franklin Ave happened to be right above a $.99 store that insisted on playing Hot 97 all day long and their insistence became the defacto music in my crib on my days off. Now, if this was the Hot 97 of 1995, when they switched formats from dance to hip-hop, I don’t think I would have minded so much except—
1) The Hot 97 of 2005 was basically just the same six songs on repeat all day with the occasional old school track thrown in;
2) Their definition of “old school” was tracks from 2001.

Combine that with the fact that I hadn’t been properly clubbing for a few years, I was kinda broke so couldn’t really dig through CDs for non-radio rap, and you get a complete disconnect when it came to me and contemporary hip-hop.

The turning point came when I read Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. A scholarly look to the origins of the art form and some deeper analysis to the national political consciousness at key junctions in hip-hop history made me feel less of a crotchety old man and more of a witness to a cultural revolution.

Another touchstone was a bit more bizarre. In 1999, Liam Howlett of the British techo band The Prodigy released The Dirtchamber Sessions, Vol 1 a CD mix tape of founding break beats, old school hip-hop, 70s British punk, techno, and alternative. Hearing the party music of my youth jamming with more current tracks was an eclectic’s dream and I played the hell out of that CD.

So while hip-hop was at arm’s distance, it was still just within reach and it came back up to slap me in the face last year during NaPoWriMo. I thought I would spend the month writing invented prayers and expanding on the poetic track I was on with Heaven Below but that all changed when Barb let me know Malcolm McLaren had died. GURU passed away just a few weeks later and I felt the need to revisit my role as witness to hip-hop’s formation and expand it to documenter.

I’ve been working backwards ever since and been digging deeper into digital crates to find more break beats that eventually became the anthems we know today. The points of origin are as varied as the points of departure which is fitting for any true artform.

I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow and also sharing poems. If you want to listen along and chime in with questions, please do so.

If ya can’t, then here’s a little something extra. A digital mix tape of the music that helped me form To the Break of Dawn. Tracks 2-23 are what I hear in my head when I read the chapbook from beginning to end. The rest of the tracks are where my head goes when I think about hip-hop poetics. Track 1 serves as the true jump off, the song I heard almost non-stop through my youth as my dad, a college radio DJ, would blast Manu Dibango‘s “Soul Makossa” like if it was the truth. Which, even at the age of five, I knew it was.