June 2022 Newsletter: The Nuyorican Poets and How to “Get” Poetry

Hello friends,

This month marked the ending of a pivotal and cherished chapter for me.

I graduated from NYU (in three years not to brag). I saw Taylor Swift speak at Yankee Stadium (okay, now I’m bragging). As a lifelong Yankees fan, being at the Stadium made it extra cool.

So here I go, entering the “real world.”

This week I also moved out of my 5th-floor walk-up studio apartment on the Lower East Side with the broken bathroom door, and only one small window…

Which meant I had to choose between having AC or using the fire escape.

I’ve lived there for two years, and it holds a special place in my heart, even with all of its obvious flaws.

I will be back in New York in the fall, but now (literally today) I’m going to my other beloved city, Barcelona, for the next two months.

I read a ton of books this month. I read the coolest book about the Brooklyn Dodgers and their stadium, Ebbets Field.

I read a book about how oil companies have lobbied schools to teach climate misinformation, and succeeded, ingraining a generation of children in many states with falsehoods about the realities of fossil fuels and climate change.

But, since I’m overjoyed to immerse myself back into my second language, I wanted to talk about this marvelous, witty, yet tragic collection of poems.

And, in the process, I hope you can see how poetry can sharpen your thinking and how you can choose the poetry that will speak to you.

Hey Yo! Yo Soy! 40 Years of Nuyorican Street Poetry by Jesús Papoleto “Papo” Meléndez

NYU was the perfect academic fit for me for a lot of reasons.

Its wealth of amazing Spanish teachers is unmatched because NYU is one of the only places in the US with an MFA in creative writing in Spanish.

This means their faculty is made up of some of Latin America’s most celebrated living writers.

I took two semesters of Spanish Literature and two semesters of creative writing in Spanish, with a focus on Spanish poetry.

This has helped take my Spanish from street fluency (Basically, I knew a lot of swear words), to professional fluency, where I can now comfortably write in Spanish…

and where my training in Spanish-English translation has even served me professionally.

I have grown to love poetry, in particular a group of poets known as the “Nuyoricans.” That is, Puerto Rican poets who lived in New York.

Historically, I never “got” poetry.

Sure, I heard some rhymes, but teachers always hinted at some deeper meaning that I didn’t understand.

My study of poetry changed that for me.

First, poetry allows us to play with language.

Because poetry is short, we can experiment with…

  • The meaning of specific words or phrases
  • The music or sound of the words
  • The visual aesthetic of letters, words, and empty space

Here are a few lines “Hey Yo! Yo Soy!”

the flood came to Puerto Rico /

unexpected / unwelcomed

like american tourists

& it left like american tourists

taking all & leaving nothing.

It’s a simple metaphor, one that made me both laugh then pause because of its political implications.

Second, poetry taught me that writing has no rules, and by extension, that life has no rules.

Papo’s poetry plays with structure. He doesn’t capitalize sentences. He adds long spaces and slashes. All of these affect our perception and how we read the poem. Poets question all of our assumptions about language and grammar.

Here’s a fun line to show this, which I will definitely be stealing…

i run up the fire escape / not to escape

He plays with the phrase “fire escape,” which we mostly don’t use to escape fire.

It’s also a uniquely English phrase, and doesn’t translate well into Spanish, forcing me to pause on this odd phrase, “fire escape,” where in Spanish they’re basically called the “fire stairs.”

Third, bilingual poetry breaks even more rules for the sake of fun and joy.

It’s just fun for fun’s sake. The title poem “Hey Yo! Yo Soy! plays on this perfectly, demonstrating how the two languages come together.

I’ve never had more fun reading, or writing poetry, than when I express myself freely in both languages, and in sub-languages (like hockey lingo), in every way possible using every language tool and phrase at my disposal.

For example ere are a few lines from a poem I wrote…

El proceso: Dangle, Snipe, Celly.

Meter los Ginos,

como Ovi, el great eight

Pasar el puck al goleador, repartir apples;

no tío, no son manzanas.

You have to speak both Spanish and Hockey to understand this, but it was a joy to write.

I write bilingual poetry without care for an audience. And when I read Papo’s poems, I feel the fun he (or anger) he has while writing.

Last, I love how poetry speaks to its place and culture.

I love Nuyorican poetry because it’s distinctly New York, a place which I’m also connected to. We can thank the Nuyoricans for the word “bodega,” which now refers to a deli that also has everything you would ever need to survive.

One poem that I love is called “The Park Avenue Tracks” where he recounts how the trains that come from Connecticut are above ground in Harlem, but below ground once it gets to Midtown.

What happens to the tracks?…

— the ones that run

along Park Avenue?

there are no tracks

in

Downtown, Business Section, N.Y.C

Only in

Poorpeoples’ville; El Barrio.

Why?

The political implication here is obvious: poorer neighborhoods, like El Barrio in Harlem, suffer the downsides of trains and highways running through their neighborhoods.

In about ten lines, Papo teaches us more about inequality in city planning in a few short lines than entire textbooks do.

Poetry has a reputation for being hard to “get.”

My advice here is simple, if you’re reading poetry and you don’t “get it,” stop reading it.

I love this poetry because I have overlapping interests with the writers: bilingualism, a deep connection to New York, and intense political engagement and interest.

These connections make the entry point easier.

If you open a book of poems, and you’re not chuckling, laughing, or feeling your stomach drop by the third page, put it down and find a different one.

This is also why, as I wrote about in this instagram post, you should wander bookstores for books, instead of always reading what gets recommended to you.

I hope you have a great start to the summer. If you need me, I’ll be in a Barcelona coffee shop eating tapas and drinking claras.

Un abrazo,

David

P.S. Do you know somebody who would love this newsletter? Maybe somebody else who speaks both Hockey and Spanish. If so, forward this to them.

If you’re said-somebody and you got sent this, you can subscribe here.

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