As much in death as in life, Nuyorican Poets Cafe cofounder Miguel Algarín commands an audience. When he passed away, on November 30, 2020, poet-activist Nancy Mercado came up with the idea of creating a virtual memorial that ballooned into a six-and-a-half-hour tribute to the Rutgers University professor and world-renowned author.
A seemingly endless array of writers and musicians shared magical memories, and the “Miguelabrations,” celebrations of life where writers could come together, continued in the form of a monthly virtual read in open-mic Zoom rooms, recreating the vibrant vibe of the Nuyorican.
“As Miguel’s former student, dear friend since 1978, and a poet, it is an honor for me to commemorate his literary and academic legacy,” Mercado, who has been chairing the Miguelabration committee, told me in a phone interview. She vividly remembers the first time she met Algarín, when he gave a speech to students as the new chair of the Puerto Rican Studies Department. “Miguel was passionate about Nuyorican performance poetry, which comes from Puerto Rico’s oral traditions,” she notes. “He was beautiful; his pepper and almost-white hair set against his dark-bronze complexion and young face. Add to that his supreme intelligence — I was taken by him immediately.”
As an 18-year-old just getting into college, Algarín’s performance poetry was a learning experience for Mercado. “His ability to take the microphone and transform the energy of a room was magical; once he began, Miguel dominated the space he occupied. He recited, sang, even moaned! He was electrifying, and could be very funny.”
Mercado was equally fascinated by Algarín’s use of language in poetry, which she describes as “strong, straight to the point, and honest.” His writing about sexuality, his desires, queer life, and bisexuality, at a time when it was still somewhat taboo, was “enlightening.” She has been working on an anthology to be published online next month, in time for what would have been Algarín’s 80th birthday, September 11.
The Early Days
Algarín was equally a muse for Lois Elaine Griffith, the former director of the Nuyorican and a Miguelabration committee member. In the 1970s, she was discovering herself as a visual artist. “Miguel always encouraged my way of telling stories,” she told me during a phone interview. “He taught me the meaning behind being ‘on call’ — to be ready to deliver yourself into your word/expression at the drop of a hat. And bring the authentic self to the moment.”
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe began as informal gatherings of poets and artists in the living room of Algarín’s railroad flat, on East 6th Street. Eventually, the crowd outgrew the living room, and when the old Sunshine Bar, a storefront across the street, became vacant, he rented it.
“I worked with Miguel to create a space for artistic performance in all forms,” continues Griffith, “particularly for people of color, of Caribbean descent, for Spanish-speaking people descended from all the Americas. For people marked by colonial oppression — but not exclusively. We attracted white artists who felt outside the mainstream. Our mission: for the artist to walk ‘from the sidewalk to the stage,’ as he would say, at a time when there were few venues for displaying the work. We were part of a group that in the current parlance of some circles is considered a ‘subaltern’ culture.”
As they evolved into a nonprofit, much time was spent on fundraising, says Griffith. “Hustling to shake the deep pockets was part of my journey with Miguel — we were parejas for whom the personal is political and for whom any critique of art expression must include discussion of the question: Is the voice authentic?”
It was Algarín who brought forth a Nuyorican renaissance to the Lower East Side. “Miguel took up the name Nuyorican when New York Puerto Ricans returned ‘home’ to a place they’d never been,” says Bob Holman, founder of the Bowery Poetry Club as well as a Miguelabration member and former Nuyorican Poetry Slam MC. “In their stacked heels, bell-bottoms, and Afros, they’d be greeted with ‘You ain’t Puerto Rican! You’re Nuyorican!’ Miguel took the insult and made it a badge of honor.”
Holman was pivotal in reopening the Nuyorican after it closed from 1982 to 1988, hosting the first New York poetry slam on Halloween in 1989. “It’s not so much that Miguel and the Nuyorican changed my life, it’s that I was reborn there, given a new life, one where poetry was spoken and danced to,” Holman told me over the phone. “There was a freedom, a bedrock truth, a personal contact between the poet and each person in the audience. For that Friday night, from the time the Slam started till the last poet read in the Open Room — sometimes as the sun was coming up! — we were a community, interconnected by the language of poetry. And of course, everybody was dancing between the sets to DJ Willie Correa.”
The ’90s were particularly vibrant years, with up to 10 poets from the Cafe touring throughout the country and Europe and the publication of ALOUD! Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Holman fondly remembers the moments when he and Algarín were editing ALOUD!, which he describes as “the bible” of the Spoken Word Movement. “I’d assumed we’d start with the Founding Poems: Miguel’s, Mikey Piñero, Lois, Sandra Esteves, Pedro Pietri, et al. Then the Next Generation: Sekou Sundiata, Nancy Mercado, me, etc. Then the poets who broke the dams with slam in the ’90s: Paul Beatty, Willie Perdomo, Maggie Estep, reg e gaines, Edwin Torres, and others. Miguel said: ‘Always start with Now, then where Now comes from, then the Originators. And always end with the Open Room — not just the mic being open, the whole room being open.’ And that’s what we did.”
Poetry as a Living Art
With Miguel as the spark, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe popularized spoken word to a new degree, performance poet Paul Skiff relates in an email. “Just look at how the popularity of spoken poetry has engulfed the world since 1988. And a further consequence of this is that now, being a poet is something with a much different profile and value in U.S. culture. Before, there were two kinds of poets, the effete academics who no one read or listened to. And then all the rest. But after the Nuyoricans, a stop was put to the rest of the poets being looked upon as the weirdos, the misfits, the geeks, the social outcasts who were goofy and maladapt, possibly amusing but not really important. Poets who emphasize the speaking of poetry out loud have quite a bit different stature in this culture and society today.”
Poet Carl Hancock Rux thought of Algarín as the “ultimate epicurean,” as well as a literary scholar. He loved how the Nuyorican was such an inclusive space for people of all races and sexual preferences. “His vast knowledge of literature was rooted in his studies of Shakespearean texts, but he was able to further broaden an experimental and poetic sensibility in new poetry influenced by an urban Puerto Rican community centered in a multicultural Lower East Side neighborhood of African Americans, Jews, Asians, and a burgeoning LGBTQIA community,” he told me via email. “He was able to embrace the diversity of a rich and emergent culture and give it its own academy: a University of the Outcast in which one could speak and invent freely while still adhering to principles of excellence.”
Algarín edited Rux’s first book of poetry, Pagan Operetta, for which he was selected by the Voice Literary Supplement as one of “Eight Writers on the Verge of Shaking Up the Literary Landscape.” Algarín “sat with my poems in his apartment, read them aloud to me, and then questioned the meaning behind each line. If I was able to explain anything at all about what the writing was trying to say, he returned to the text and chiseled away words and lofty phrases that clouded the essential meaning of the work. I never had an editor like that before Miguel Algarín, and I have not had one since.”
The Later Years
Those closest to Algarín know his last years were extremely difficult.
A charismatic figure, Algarín led a complex social and sexual life that was sometimes Dionysian, with enough Apollonian form to produce art, notes longtime friend and colleague Roy Skodnick via email. “He had been so constant for so long, the one that kept the vessel on course, with contacts, money, producing, directing, etc. He had done this all with a rare equanimity, love, and charm that seduced most anybody.”
Algarín was a sensualist and a hedonist, always had been, but in his late sixties he was more vulnerable than he was as an energetic younger man, says Skodnick, who wrote the afterword to Algarín’s book Love Is Hard Work. “Some close to him also became partners in pleasure jaunts, a lot of drinking and cocaine. He remained lucid, especially in the morning with the whole vision of how he wanted to grow; but as the day progressed, his headquarters became the corner bar where people met and the day proceeded.”
Skodnick continues, “Lois took him in for two years, which was stressful; finally, he got into senior housing, which allowed him to go to local bars, until a final fall left him incapacitated and his nephew John Howard-Algarín got him into Cardinal Cook Nursing Home.”
During the 2000s, Algarín had a contentious relationship with the Nuyorican’s board of directors. “What really distressed Miguel the most was when he was removed from the Nuyorican’s board,” says Mercado. “Many times he talked about how he felt the administration essentially threw him out. He felt disconnected and left behind. Being such a resource for the community, it was sad to see his disappointment over not being utilized — such a missed opportunity. Also, the death of his beloved mom helped push him to despair. I really wish they tried to honor him more.” She adds, “He wasn’t allowed into his own venue, even when he was well. They could have treated Miguel with more respect and dignity — he was the founder of the Cafe and introduced the Nuyorican literary movement into the American canon.”
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe started out as a collectivized community cultural center. To gain operating stability and growth, it came under the influence of the idea that it needed to get more formally organized, acknowledges Skiff. “It got tugged between a rather grassroots organization wholly influenced by Puerto Rican culture, and ideas about legitimate cultural organizations promoted by the white order. That is a trajectory overripe with built-in conflict. When you have to start thinking about a board of directors handbook and bylaws, which can be imposed by ‘experts’ of the field of not-for-profits, collectivity and communal organizing can undergo a lot of pressure and get squelched. But my question is, did this situation have to end up being ‘either-or’? Not to my way of thinking.”
When the Voice asked for a response, Daniel Gallant, current executive director of the Nuyorican [Editor’s note: see addendum at end of this article], responded in a phone call. “Miguel wanted to continue doing things in the more casual way the Cafe had done them for a long time. Understandably, he found it difficult to change gears after decades. His health, cognitive situation, and drinking also made it difficult at times for him to keep up with some of the legal and fiscal measures that the IRS and New York State required. But the Cafe was in danger of losing the building.” Gallant explained that eventually, Algarín and Griffith decided not to stand for reelection, and instead requested non-voting board emeritus status, which allowed them to continue attending board meetings and advising the board but exempted them from elections.
Griffith remembers the board confrontation differently: “Either we accept emeritus status or they would remove us without consideration of our further participation in Cafe development. They were going to set aside the by-laws which made ‘founders’ of the second inception of the Cafe ‘life directors.’ Those board meetings for which we were to be counselors — that were supposed to be open to Miguel and I — were not. We were never invited nor consulted for our opinions about the direction of the Cafe. Let’s not pretend that we were.”
On YouTube, there is footage from an Algarín documentary created by Will Roberson, filmed at the Nuyorican with actor Ray Barry and Skodnick, which shows Gallant asking the crew to leave. “I wish that all of us — myself, other staff, and the organization as a whole — had handled those situations better,” says Gallant. “We were in uncharted waters; how do we run an organization while honoring and protecting a legendary founder who is no longer able to function in a safe, cogent manner on a regular basis? If his access to alcohol had been more regularly limited, and he had been consistently supervised, that would have helped a lot — but many people continued to give him alcohol and leave him unattended while he was drunk or disoriented.”
Says Rux, “All of his accomplishments emerged from his leadership capabilities. He was also a phenomenally gifted poet who, above all, loved the musicality of language. He invested his days and nights in listening to the people, collecting their demons as his own, wearing a multitude of skins, and if he failed at all (in love, or business), I believe it was only because he had consumed more than any human being could possibly stand.”
Adds poet Jani Rose, when I spoke to her on the phone, “This scholar who created high art of the roaches and the tenements was heartbroken that he was no longer part of the very home he created.”
Rose had events scheduled at the Nuyorican, and was told by the organizers that Algarín could only come in if she made sure he behaved professionally. “That meant making sure he didn’t drink too much or act belligerent and remained in good spirits. And if he was acting in a negative way, to be aware of that behavior.” While she is grateful that their online open mics are currently led by two Nuyorican poets (Erik “Advocate of Wordz” Maldonado and Caridad “La Bruja” De La Luz), Rose is concerned about the venue’s future.
“As a Nuyorican poet, the Cafe is holy to me. It’s integral that we continue to cultivate, proliferate, uplift, and celebrate our voices. We are a large and humble community, rich with culture, passionate, and displaced in so many ways. They say that we are Ni de aquí, ni de allá. We’re not from here or there. As a poet born of Boricua ancestry in the hood, the Cafe is our embassy. It is imperative that Nuyoricans continue to provide that safe space for our legacy to continue to bloom with each generation. We owe it to ourselves and to Algarín.” ❖
A celebration of Algarín’s poetry and creative vision will be held on September 11. For more information go to nuyorican.org.
This is the first of a two-part feature about Miguel Algarín and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The second installment will be posted next week.
Susan L. Hornik was the publicist for the Nuyorican in the ’90s, and also curated the popular Cafe reading series, Poets Erotica. Special thanks to Nancy Mercado for her contribution.
Editor’s note: After 13 years with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Daniel Gallant is leaving to become founding executive director of a new organization supporting the arts, environmental sustainability, and social justice.