The little gray building on East 3rd Street, right off Loisaida Avenue, is deceptively low-key. White Christmas lights dangle from the fire escape and a small sign proclaims, in bold black letters, “Nuyorican Poet’s Café.” Then Julio, the bouncer, opens the door, demanding five bucks—as he’s been doing every Friday night since 1989 when the café first began holding poetry slams. Inside, it’s crowded. Folks of all colors are sprawled on the floor, propped up against the stairs, leaning against the brick walls—occupancy 120 people alerts a nearby sign. Don’t matter. Wordsmith and blind man Steve Cannon’s at the end of bar, his usual seat, drinking white wine and smoking a cigarette, heckling the poets to “read the damn poem.”
For the last 25 years, Nuyorican Poet’s Café, the spoken word mecca of New York City, has dusted poetry off and brought it back to the people. Born from literary gatherings at poet Miguel Algarín’s home—”I said, ‘I have to get all these people out of my house,’ ” he recalls—Nuyorican blasted the spoken-word scene into popular culture, beguiled MTV into running spoken word videos, and helped launch an impressive list of literati alumni, from Paul Beatty and Carl Hancock Rux to Hal Sirowitz and Tracie Morris. As poetry continues to make its way into the mainstream, Nuyorican keeps its fierce multiculti stage alive with ever more emerging voices swapping syllables with veteran slammers.
In the spirit of spoken word, here is an oral history celebrating both National Poetry Month and especially the café’s 25th anniversary.
Back in the Day
“The day we opened the store a bunch of white folks walked by, and they sat there with the working-class Puerto Ricans drinking their first Nuyorican glass of wine or beer for 50 cents, and they found they were welcomed. No more than a week later, Allen Ginsberg passes by and soon becomes one of its main attendees. One of my great memories was when William Burroughs was getting up to read in that nonexpressive way of his and people being befuddled at first and then snickering and then uproarious laughter because Burroughs had a sense of humor that was unbelievable dry wit. These working-class people were on it like white on rice. He loved it.” —Nuyorican Poet’s Café founder Miguel Algarín
“I was doing performances in the East Village, and somebody said, ‘Edwin you need to get in touch with your roots and find out what you’re doing.’ I saw that Poet’s House was having a reading with Nuyorican Poets Jorge Brandon, Miguel Algarín, and Bimbo Rivas—heavy-duty Nuyorican poets. This was poetry like I didn’t expect it to be. It was demystifying the idea of an old standard. The café reflects Miguel in that it listens but it also speaks and lets you know what’s on its mind. He’s very confident and very Puerto Rican in that way.” —poet Edwin Torres, author of Fractured Humorist
“Nuyorican is the collision of poetry and entertainment, and a place that opened possibilities for multicultural voices.”—poetry activist and original slam host Bob Holman, whose falling out with Algarín is legendary and off-limits in conversation with the poets
I was just a poet
wanting to read a poem
the first night I came here.
I have become a street poet
then somebody’s favorite urban poet
a new jack hip-hop rap poet
a born-again Langston Hughes
a downtown performance poet
but you won’t catch me rehearsing
because my shit is ready made real
and you won’t see me sucking
on showbiz-flavored throat drops
because I want you to hear
the crack at the back
of my throat
—from “Spotlight at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café,” by Willie Perdomo
The Nuyorican Experience
“Nuyorican has the feel of a hot, steamy club, but you’re all crowded in listening to poetry.” —poet Susan Scutti
“Losing and losing really badly the grand slam in ’92 was a great experience. It made me clear about not writing poetry just to win a competition. Once I decided to continue, there was no way to go but up. The Nuyorican knows itself, it doesn’t have anything to prove, and it has a reputation for being an incubator for developing talent.” —Tracie Morris, winner of the National Grand Slam in 1993 and author of Intermission
“There was one night that some judges gave me a C.O.—Conscientious Objector. They refused to give me a score because they thought the material was offensive.” —Willie Perdomo, author of The Day Hector LaVoe Died
“It was the hippest, most fun nightclub, like a rock and roll club, only there was poetry.” —poet Emily XYZ
“I came from the streets, I used to be a prostitute and a drug dealer and I never expected to become a poet and writer. I reinvented myself. Performing poetry at the Nuyorican is the equivalent of performing at the Apollo Theater. The audience is passionate about their poetry. If you suck, they’ll let you know. It’s a place where you walk in not expecting much but walk out completely changed and enlightened to something different you didn’t know was out there.” —poet Emanuel Xavier
“People who come to the Nuyorican to see the poetry slam may not have been fans of poetry but the thing is, a lot of people have converted on the spot, there’s something infectious about it.” —former slam master Keith Roach
The Nuyorican Poet’s Café 25th-anniversary performance and reading will be held Saturday in Washington Square Park from 2 to 5 p.m. (rain date: April 30).