#nuyoricanpoetscafe #newyorkpoetry #streetpoetry #poetryslam

HIGH ART FOUND ON THE SIDEWALK

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Poets on the East Coast are likely to be familiar with the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe. This is a Lower East Side haunt that has featured poetry readings and poetry slams for years. It was founded in 1973 and continues to run events today. It is one of the most famous poetry venues in New York City. Many of the best from the City and from around America have tested their chops there.

 

I myself have read poetry aloud at the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe. Of course, I was omitted when they put out the anthology Aloud: Voices From the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe. Guess my accidental Tazmanian Devil impersonation just didn't cut the mustard. Oh well, I wouldn't be able to review the book if I was in it so let's get back to business.

 

 This thick anthology features poetry from dozens of poets who have read their work at Nuyoricans. The collection was edited by Miguel Algarin and Bob Holman.  Algarin is one of the founders of the Cafe while Holman has served as host of the many poetry slams featured at the Cafe. This book, originally published in 1994, features close to 500 pages of poetry. Some of it is quite good and some of it will leave the reader cold.

 

I guess any volume of poetry is bound to have a hit or miss quality with the poems. Poetry should elicit a visceral response when it is done correctly. I will also mention the aspect of personal taste. There were numerous poems that didn't really hit the spot for me. In some cases, I felt the poems didn't translate well to the page.

 

There were also cases where I felt that poets weren't writing bad verse but they weren't really offering much in the way of originality. I found myself going back and forth between being impressed and unimpressed with the poets in this book.

 

Aloud does feature some poets that I greatly admire like Wanda Coleman, Lamont Steptoe, Eileen Myles and Victor Hernandez Cruz. They only include one poem each from Steptoe and Myles. Cruz and Coleman have several poems featured in the book. Editor Miguel Algarin has numerous poems and an interesting preface titled The Sidewalk of High Art where he provides some historical background for the Cafe as well as some notes on the inspiration behind this poetry driven cafe.

 

Among the highlights in the book would be An Essay on William Carlos Williams by Victor Hernandez Cruz.  I also really liked Sun Ra! by Hattie Gossett:

 

I've been dancing all my life/probably came out of the womb doing a little step/ i've danced on four continents and several islands/ in places hifly la la & lowdown lowlife ummmph/ i got a dance major masters degree

 

That is a rather long poem but it honors a unique American musician.  The overall tone of the collection, while being poetry from the streets does manage to avoid excessive obscenity. Of course, vulgarity is a matter of opinion. Those who will be offended by any curse word at all might want to avoid this book.

 

Bob Holman also has several poems featured as well as an introduction called Congratulations! You have found this book!.  Holman was longtime host of the poetry slams held at Nuyorican in the 90s. His poem 1990 is about the release of Nelson Mandela. This is a long poem about the political climate that existed in the early 90s.

 

It's 1990/ & Nelson Mandela is free!/and everyone wants a little glasnost/ We know we want it because we see Frank Zappa smoking cigarettes with Vaclav Havel.

 

Holman notes in his introductory invocation that one should not approach this volume as simply a book to be read but realize that the poems here were designed to read aloud and performed on a stage. That is both a strength and a weakness for this book. Sometimes, I am able to go along for the ride and get a feel for the tone and pulse of the poems being read. I can imagine the poet standing in front of me and hear the voice inflecting the verse. Other poems simply do not come across so well. 

 

This collection does include a pretty wide range of poets. There is great diversity among the poets. There are black poets, Hispanic poets, Asian poets, gay poets, women poets, Jewish poets etc. They are all expressing themselves freely. There is a looseness and bawdiness that comes across pretty well overall. I can tell you from experience that the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe was (and likely still is) a fun place to read and listen to poetry. The book does reflect on the free spirited nature of the venue and the founders. 

 

Aloud is a great find for those who enjoy modern poetry culled from the streets. This is not academic poetry. This is poetry written by those poets not fortunate enough to be able to hide in the ivory towers of the universities. It is gritty and down to earth. It might offend some but it will likely pleasantly surprise people open to current poetry.

 

 

 

Author's Notes/Comments: 

This is a review of an anthology of poets that performed at or have some association with the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe in New York City.  They have been at it for 45 years.  I attended numerous readings and poetry slams there and even on occasion got up and performed on stage.  A lot of the poets featured in the anthology have influenced me over the years.

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