Diasporican Poets Mixtape: Side One
It’s been a challenging twenty months for Puerto Rico. Against the backdrop of an ongoing economic and political crisis and the PROMESA bill’s imposition of a financial control board or “junta,” many Puerto Ricans are joining an increasingly remapped diaspora, while many on and off the island are also protesting the U.S.’s at once neoliberal and old-school-colonial designs. Even recent triumphs such as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton and Mónica Puig’s historic Olympic gold medal in tennis (the island’s first gold) have dredged up difficult questions about the many faces of colonialism, and more specifically about what poet Guillermo Rebollo Gil, writing about Miranda’s support for PROMESA, calls “colonial politics in post-colonial times.”
Thankfully, 2015 and the first eight months of 2016 have also brought us a lot of wondrous poetry from across the Puerto Rican diaspora, including major authors old and new, and spanning a range of aesthetics and geographies. What follows is a two-part poetic mixtape of my favorite Diasporican joints from the past twenty months: this first post will focus on 2015 and the next one on 2016. By no means meant to be authoritative or exhaustive, this mixtape focuses on poems that have helped me make existential and/or political sense of our Boricua moment.
In the wake of this summer’s tragic shooting at the Orlando nightclub Pulse, where almost half of the victims were Puerto Rican, and in light of the Loisaida Center’s revelatory 2015 exhibit on the Young Lords, I have been reflecting on the limitations of largely macropolitical understandings of diaspora, and seeking out perspectives that can claim a language in and for anger and loss. These are some of the poems that have showed me the way.
The first career-spanning collection of this legendary poet’s work, Pedro Pietri: Selected Poetry includes the title poem and other classics from the foundational Puerto Rican Obituary (1973), as well as visionary lyrics from 1983’s Traffic Violations, a hefty selection of the irreverent “telephone booth” poems from 2001’s Out of Order, and even the radical poetic-prose narrative Lost in the Museum of Natural History (1981). Lovingly and knowledgeably edited by poet, scholar, and editor Pedro López Adorno and the late Juan Flores (a foundational figure in Puerto Rican and Latinx studies whose Salsa Rising is one of my definitive books of 2016), this collection also crucially includes previously unpublished work from Pietri’s vast and fascinating archives at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in East Harlem.
“Orchard Beach” is a previously unpublished rough gem from the Pietri archives, as well as the perfect place to begin an end-of-summer mixtape. Pietri’s poem begins by acknowledging that the beauty of this beach they call the Puerto Rican Riviera has less to do with the quality of its water than with its people and the communities it sustains and bridges, and it proposes a translocal diasporic “republic” linking this murky and artificial beach to Puerto Rico’s tropics. In claiming the “Orchard beach republic // By not so beautiful sea / To swim back to Borinquen,” Pietri prefigures the embodied geographies of a poem such as María Teresa “Mariposa” Fernández’s “Ode to the Diasporican,” which, along with Flores’s work, has helped popularize the term “Diasporican” over the past two decades.
To me, “Orchard Beach” is also a reminder that hanging out and living in community is and should be a political act. A central character in the poem is Pietri’s friend Dylcia Pagán, an activist and former political prisoner, and the poem lovingly remembers the fleeting summer hours shared with Pagán and others at Orchard Beach as a way to “continue writing / The poem already written / that brought us together.” Writing poetry here is living poetry, and the poem ultimately encourages artists, intellectuals, and barrio folks alike to do
Like enjoy themselves
For a change and maybe
They will learn how to
Dance el mambo at last
Take note, hermit poets of the age of social media, it’s the choreography of bodies in Pietri’s poem that brings together poets and activists, the barrio and the beach, the prisons and the classrooms, the island and its diaspora. Referencing the impromptu summer jam sessions Orchard Beach has long been known for, Pietri notes: “Congueros are poets also.”
As I mentioned, “Orchard Beach” is a bit rough; it has some typos that mark it as a likely draft, but that also probably reflect Pietri’s gift for spontaneous vernacular composition as well as the Nuyorican poets’ affirmation of Spanglish as a poetic language. To their credit, López Adorno and Flores choose not to correct Pietri’s typos or gloss his code switches, instead asking us to become part of the poem’s choreography of reading and/as living.
I could complain about the lack of a substantive introduction or a proper biography and bibliography in Pedro Pietri: Selected Poetry, and about the fact that it does not include work from his many self-published pamphlets, object books, and broadsides. Still, López Adorno and Flores have done us an enormous favor by painstakingly and authoritatively rescuing a major innovator in contemporary poetry from a long and undeserved editorial oblivion. This book joins the solid editions of the work of Tato Laviera (2014) and Miguel Piñero (2010) published by Arte Público Press, and its less successful Miguel Algarín volume (2009), as well as the republication of Jesús Papoleto Meléndez’s early books of poetry by 2Leaf Press (2013), in recovering the original Nuyorican poets of the 1960s and 1970s. One can only hope that this editorial rediscovery will soon extend to women poets from that early Nuyorican scene, such as Sandra María Esteves, whose work remains largely out of print. (Red Sugarcane Press deserves a shoutout here for its single volumes of early Nuyorican figures such as Magdalena Gómez, as does Nancy Mercado for editing the essential Nuyorican Women Writers Anthology, about which I will have more to say in my next post.)
While the publication of Pedro Pietri: Selected Poetry should be a cause for celebration, it feels bittersweet. This should have happened while Pietri (1943-2004) was alive, or at least it shouldn’t have taken over a decade after his death. In fact, sources assure me that efforts were repeatedly made to get City Lights to publish a Selected Pietri while the poet was still alive, but the press, for whatever reason, ultimately passed on the project. Whatever the specifics, it’s a cruel irony for the poet of the Obituary to be legible only now, in death and distance, and particularly at a moment when the Nuyorican Poets Cafe is poised for a deluxe renovation that raises tough questions about its past and future, and about the status of outlaw Nuyorican histories in the neoliberal city. Fortunately, we have poems like “Orchard Beach,” reminding us “Of the nation we are // On this temporary beach / Of this everlasting day.”
02. Frank Lima, “Invitation to a Self-Portrait.” In Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New and Selected Poems. Edited by Garrett Caples and Julien Poirier. City Lights Books, 2015.
In what must be some kind of record (at least for non-Latinx/POC-geared presses or for poets not named William Carlos), City Lights has published two (2!) books of Puerto Rican poetry in the same year, both of them posthumous selected volumes by Harlem-grown cult poets! In fact, as Garrett Caples notes via Guillermo Parra in his excellent introduction to Incidents of Travel in Poetry (full disclosure: I’m quoted there), while Frank Lima (1939-2013) was the East Harlem son of a Mexican father and a Puerto Rican mother, he rejected the label of “Latino” poet, both out of suspicion toward the glorification of the barrio (and El Barrio in particular) and out of a sense of the complexity of his cultural and poetic roots and routes, a complexity that resisted such labels.
Lima is best known as a member of the New York School of poets, and Caples does a fine job of teasing out the personal and/or poetic affinities between Lima and Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, David Shapiro, and others, but what’s most remarkable to me (and Caples emphasizes it) is how sui generis Lima’s life and work were and remain. It’s not that Lima shied away from “Latino” content in his work: as Caples notes and as I have argued, Lima’s uneasily autobiographical early work (especially his 1964 debut Inventory: Poems, published through the iconic Tibor de Nagy gallery) is harrowing in its documenting of psychic and social struggle in the barrio. Even in his more visionary and abstract later work, Lima will include Spanish words and phrases in his poems, often to unsettling, humorous, and/or defamiliarizing effect (sample titles: “Abuelas’s Wake,” “Plena,” and “Culo Prieto”). And it’s not that influences aren’t discernible: the surrealist-lyric Neruda of Residence on Earth, with his pained phenomenology and his chains of prepositional phrases, is an evident influence, even obliquely in the title of late poems such as “The Black Song of the Apple” (2012). Still, the latter poem devolves, like many other later Lima poems, into eerie fragments and odd enjambments. The ugly word-processual beauty of its form evokes poetry’s electronic body as much as its startling ending does: “I would have deleted my / Body and emailed the rest to her as a token of destiny.”
For its part, “Invitation to a Self-Portrait” is a dark yet enlightened meditation on the possibilities and pitfalls of the self-portrait, and it appropriately mines an epigraph from Frida Kahlo, a genius of strategic self-revelation and self-transformation. It also addresses a “you” that, in keeping with O’Hara’s “Personism,” might be the reader as much as a lover or Kahlo or a projection of the lyric self.
Caples quotes David Shapiro’s claim that Lima told him that whereas Allen Ginsberg (another evident influence) “always wants to get back to Harlem. I want to get out of Harlem.” Lima got out, but he didn’t need to be in Harlem to keep it (sur)real. “Invitation to a Self-Portrait” starts by declaring that “When my life becomes too real for my own good, I jump into the /Appetites of night,” but what might sound like a city poet’s boast gives way, by poem’s end, to an acknowledgment that all that poetry can capture are “glimmers of you,” that fleetingness and opacity are a poem’s limitations but also its power.
So, yeah, there’s no confusing Lima with the social choreographies of the Nuyorican poets, even though this too is a poetics of creative survival, of beauty in struggle. (Shoutout to the late, great Tato Laviera who, back in the early-to-mid-2000s, encouraged me to make room for Lima in the Nuyorican tradition). And on a lighter note, this poem’s “I walk into things and lose my way in stores as tiny / As bodegas that house a forest of American beers for the natives” is hands down the best and funniest poetic one-liner ever about the gentrification of the NYC barrio, edging out even Willie Perdomo, who provides a glowing back-cover blurb for the book. As Perdomo puts it, Lima is “an authentic outlier” and Incidents of Travel in Poetry “transcends and decolonizes.”
03. Kristiana Colón, “a remix for remembrance.” In The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Edited by Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall. Haymarket Books, 2015.
The BreakBeat Poets is of course a hip-hop poetry anthology, but the “age of “ phrasing in the subtitle lets the editors use hip-hop as a frame from which to examine contemporary poetry, and from which to unsettle its foundations (pun intended). Playing with the many senses of “break”—political rupture, temporal rupture, deviation from the aesthetic norm, polyrhythm, slant rhyme, and enjambment—the editors propose a poetic countergenealogy that, like Fred Moten’s In the Break, is also a socioaesthetics.
I had never read Colón’s work before, although I was familiar with her performance on HBO’s Def Poetry. What immediately struck me about “a remix for remembrance” is how elegantly it balances key elements of hip-hop poetics, such as anaphora and internal rhyme, with tight rhymed quatrains that then cut loose into the musical improvisations the poem also thematizes—“Clarinets and thunder and the syllables you say / are the instruments: you are infinite”—building up to the moving amphibrach-laden invocation “Send diamonds to your islands and tell them you remember” and to what is effectively a prayer for all the children of diaspora.
Colón’s work has the rhythmic fire and political imagination characteristic of much Chicago Rican poetry (as with Mayda del Valle, a more established poet also included in The BreakBeat Poets) but her take on the remix is all her own. This remembrance, dedicated to her students, is also a celebration of language’s power to build (the anaphoric “You are the builders” toward the end), and of a sound beyond barriers. As if to show and not just tell, Colón rhymes “quinceañeras” and “eloteras” with “We will rewrite our textbooks in our own language if you dare us,” leading us across tongues to where a new kind of remembrance becomes possible.
There are many other excellent Diasporican poets included in the The BreakBeat Poets, but I want to highlight the three poems by the late John Rodríguez (1973-2013), and especially the disarming “At My Best,” a summer reverie that also works as a meditation on work, love, and death, and as a sampling exercise in couplet form.
With this debut collection, Morales joins a group of authors of mixed Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican descent who are making their mark on U.S. Latinx literature, among them the novelist Ernesto Quiñonez and the poet/performer/novelist/editor Emanuel Xavier (stay tuned!).
The Siren World is divided into two sections, with the first, The Mountain, more focused on Ecuador and its geographic and existential environs, and the second, The Island, similarly focused on Puerto Rico. The book includes a range of artistic, and historical references, from a poem about the Quechua chronicler Guaman Poma, which becomes a clever questioning of the limits of (auto-ethnographic) writing, to the poem “Passport,” inspired by the Puerto Rican passports created by the artist Adál in the context of his ElPuertoRicanEmbassy collaboration with Pietri and the activist Eddie Figueroa.
Within this referential field, a short poem about flip-flops seems comparatively humdrum. Yet, especially when considered in the full context of the book, “My Father Throwing Away His Flip Flops” documents something that’s very hard to talk about in a Puerto Rican context: the interconnectedness between militarism, diaspora, and identity. Despite the significant presence of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. military since World War I, I can think of few literary texts from the island or the diaspora that substantively address military life (Pietri, who served in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, wrote some Vietnam poems, but to my knowledge they have never been published.)
In this context, Morales’s poem about his father discarding his old flip flops, and with them “soil samples—/Vietnam, Panama/Puerto Rico, Germany—/never catalogued,” becomes a map (one of many in the book) of a partially hidden history. It explains how, in a later poem, the mountain roads of Puerto Rico blur with those of Colorado, where Morales grew up, and with the Ecuadorian mountains in the book’s first section. Or how the poem “Of Fathers and Volcanoes” finds that same Puerto Rican father worrying about Mount St. Helens lava near the Fort Lewis base in Washington state. The history of the Puerto Rican diaspora is not just that of the barrios of New York and Chicago and other northern industrial cities, or of an emerging New South, but also that of military families, of the promise of class mobility and the realities of colonialism and displacement. I’m grateful to Morales for mapping these geographic and existential coordinates, and given our diaspora’s demographics, I know we can expect more of these kinds of stories.
Another standout for me was the concluding “An Apology to La Isla,” with its poignant figuration of the speaker as a tourist in his father’s island. I’m reminded of the island poet Mara Pastor, whose translocal work subtly figures the poet as existential tourist, often against a backdrop of global violence and struggle.
05. Roberto F. Santiago, “Eyewitness.” In Angel Park. Tincture Press, an imprint of Lethe Press, 2015.
Originally from the South Bronx and now living in Oakland, CA, Santiago represents a younger generation of queer Latinx poets who are engaging the political from a defiantly intersectional perspective, and across cultures and aesthetics. We read about soirees in Brooklyn and Paris and Montréal, about “Two Old Ladies at the Met Staring at a Mural” (think Romare Bearden), and about a range of encounters on the 6 train in the Bronx.
A number of the most powerful poems in this debut collection echo Langston Hughes, not only in their sensuous music and their rich imagery, but also in their scoring of the page. “Eyewitness” in particular cleverly plays with layout so that the gorgeous opening couplet “Last night, I saw my first shooting star in Harlem./ It split the sky in half and tore taffeta from daffodil. ” gives way to the scene of a shooting in Harlem. As the star recedes, the shooting is foregrounded, and the writing on the page blurs with the police helicopter searchlight as
hailing metalfeather and bone.
so that “Eyewitness” becomes a testing of the limits of the “I” and the poetics of witnessing.
Santiago’s willingness to experiment and to take risks, not only formally but also with subject matter and tone, bode well for his evolution as a writer, and he’s someone I will be reading with great interest. Already, his work shows a capacity to engage tried and true topics in fresh and unexpected ways. For instance, the poem “The Ways of Men” approaches the issue of masculinity and father/son relationships with very few words, hinging instead on constant repetitions of phrases that begin with “My Father” and “The Man I.” The result is as funny as it is disturbing, and through repetition the poem manages to both confront and parody the mythic place of “My Father” and “The Man” within constructions of our identities as (Latinx, queer, etc.) sons.
Given Santiago’s spatial and formal explorations, the poems in Angel Park function as what the back-cover text calls “vehicles of travel, or motion from the familiar.” Against facile narratives of family or home, these poems dare to queer the diaspora through an unhomely and defamiliarizing imagination.
Stay tuned for side two, where the mixtape turns to 2016.
- David Shapiro
- Hybrid creatures
- City Lights
- Saara Myrene Raappana
- Nuyorican Poets Cafe
- James Dibley Watson Jr.
- Pedro Pietri
- Julie Carr
- Garrett Caples
- Jang Jin-sung
- Julien Poirier
- Jessica Greenbaum
- Guillermo Parra
- Lanny Jordan Jackson
- Frank Lima
- Annie Vought
- Nate Marshall
- Capitalist Realism
- Kevin Coval
- Quraysh Ali Lansana
- Francisco Aguilera
- Harper Collins
- Roberto F. Santiago
- Wifredo Lam
- Juan J. Morales
- Kristiana Colón
- Pedro López Adorno
- Juan Flores
- María Teresa “Mariposa” Fernández
- Dylcia Pagán
- The BreakBeat Poets
- Taleen Kali
- Azariah Cole-Shephard
- East Bay Times
- Raina J. León
- Vincent Toro
- Apiary Magazine
- Precious Okoyomon
Originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Urayoán Noel is the author of the poetry collections Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico (2015), a Library Journal Top Fall Indie Poetry selection; Hi-Density Politics (2010), a National Book Critics Circle Small Press Highlights selection; Kool Logic/La Lógica Kool (2005), an El Nuevo Día Book of the...