The Nuyorican Poets Café, A Cauldron for Poetry And Politics

Apr 8, 2017
Originally published on April 8, 2017 11:25 pm

In the heart of an ever-gentrifying New York City neighborhood, the Nuyorican Poets Café was once called "the most integrated place on the planet" by none other than Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Today it remains a wildly diverse venue still influenced by its mostly Puerto Rican founders who claimed it as a site of artistry and resistance in 1973.

Poet and founder Miguel Algarín and his artist friends just wanted a place to get together to create. By the 1990s, the Café was the epicenter of Slam Poetry in the country.

With its focus on spoken word, and slam poetry in particular (though it also hosts hip-hop, rap, and Latin jazz artists), the Café embodies the belief that anyone can take the stage and interpret one of the most accessible art forms. "The philosophy and purpose of the Nuyorican Poets Café has always been to reveal poetry as a living art," Algarín wrote in the anthology Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café.

That feeling remains.

On a recent Open Mic night, for example, audiences were treated to a raunchy stand-up set about girls with big body parts by a tall Haitian man, a convulsive spit session by a wiry New Zealander, a rap performance about coffee and water that elicited plenty of hollering, and a moving socially conscious piece called "Don't Do That" that felt like a woke listicle come alive thanks to its thumping beats. "Let's all do the best to not elect a reptile," the performer intoned, "and don't do any drugs made in the 80s." It even called out the rampant homophobia that often greets provocative rap performers: "Don't say no homo; we're all gay as f***."

The crowds at the Café, through their loud clapping, peppery snaps, sarcastic hollers, and delighted screams during performances, creates one of the most welcoming spots in all of New York City. In the words of poet Portia Bartley, who was featured in a recent Poetry Slam night and who was a regular before moving to Los Angeles, the Café "speaks to the marginalized, to anyone who's usually not granted a safe space to express themselves and speak on their experiences."

The audience has also evolved and now includes not only first-generation Latinos, but African-Americans and Asian-Americans. Daniel Gallant, executive director since 2008, believes that's exactly the venue's mission. "What we've tried to do in my time at the Café is create as many opportunities as possible for artists who may not otherwise look at slam poetry or spoken word as an accessible art form," he said. Those Open Mic spots, as well as multiple Poetry Slam Nights every week, are platforms to showcase budding artists to the eager young audience.

Among the favorite theme nights is the Wednesday Night Poetry Slam Open where poets are rated by three randomly selected judges before a rapt and raucous audience. Winners earn a spot on the headlining Friday Night Poetry Slam. The reward is part of an embedded teaching philosophy that encourages experimenting and redrafting. "We rather hear a noble failure than a polished success," Gallant said. This echoes what Mahogany L. Browne, the poetry program curator at the Café, said via email about what makes the space such an invaluable resource.

"The reality is that art has been commodified for so long, it is a rarity that there is a space that cultivates community, invests in the act of the building the portfolio of writers/performers, and is a purveyor of the preservation of this constantly re-imagined art form." While the Café sporadically stages theatrical events (most famously in 2015 with Carmen: A Drinking Opera), the emphasis remains on the fleeting and the ephemeral.

Much of the work showcased at the Café exists at the intersection of art and activism. Given its proximity to the worlds and words of activism, slam poetry remains a hotbed for politically-charged voices. While the Café, a registered nonprofit, is prohibited from taking political stances, performers are not. Recent projects like Benjamin Benne's queer piece Querencia: An Imagined Autobiography about Forbidden Fruits, upcoming PEN World Voices events including "US Borders and the Central American Diaspora," as well as a summer workshop staging of Ishmael Reed's new play, Life Among the Aryans, merely continue the cultural work that Algarín envisioned, work that speaks to complex cultural and political currents.

"If people want art that is easy to process, we politely encourage them to go elsewhere," Gallant said.

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