When I first met Jesús Papoleto Meléndez (affectionately known as “Papo”) thirteen years ago, it didn’t take long for me to realize that Papo is an old soul who is a kid at heart. The same man who was inspired to write from Mickey Mouse is also the same guy who takes politics and social issues to heart. Papo’s forth righteousness is refreshing and disarming in the midst of the pretentious politics one often finds in the writing community. What makes him a standout is that he has a sense of humor, both in conversation and on the page, yet he manages to unleash life’s ironies that are often ignored, sparing the reader from drowning in self-righteous sentimentality. As a gifted storyteller, Papo’s poetry sparkles with intensity and his stories are valued in tone, forging an enchanting amalgam of memory and imagination. – G. David
To read all of Papo’s poems, check out the Poet’s Corner.
Papo was born and raised in El Barrio (also known as “East Harlem” or “Spanish Harlem,” located in the upper east side of Manhattan), of Puerto Rican parents who migrated to the mainland in search of a better life for their family. Growing up with three sisters and one brother, Papo, the middle kid in the family, acquired a penchant for looking at things from a different perspective. Attending the public schools of his neighborhood, Papo became interested in writing at a young age, and participated in his first poetry reading when he was 19 years old.
Papo was a poet and playwright emerging on the New York City scene who was at the right place at the right time. During the 1970s, he worked as a teacher-poet for Teachers & Writers Collaborative (T&W) Writer-in-Residence Program, a then relatively new organization founded by a group of writers and educators who believed that writers could make a unique contribution to the teaching of writing. Fervently publishing and performing his works, he also became one of the founders of the “Nuyorican” movement. This intellectual movement that sprang up during the 1960s involved activists, teachers, poets, writers, musicians and artists of Puerto Rican descent, who were either born in the city or had moved there when they were very young. Reflecting the complex nature of the Puerto Rican diaspora, “Nuyorican” has been popularized not only as a cultural term for Puerto Ricans living in New York City, but also for Puerto Ricans living throughout the United States.
The Nuyorican movement was headquartered, more or less, out of El Barrio, one of the hardest hit areas during the 1960s and 1970s as New York City struggled with deficits, race riots, urban flight, drug abuse, crime and poverty. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, Puerto Ricans began to become more assertive in proclaiming and taking pride in their own cultural identity. By 1969, a regional chapter of the Young Lords (which was reorganized from a neighborhood street gang in Chicago), coalesced with the Black Panthers and called for Puerto Rican self-determination and neighborhood empowerment.
It was also during this time that music like Tito Puente and Ray Barretto wafted throughout the streets of El Barrio. Piri Thomas published his best-selling autobiography Down These Mean Streets in 1967, which describes his struggle for survival as a Puerto Rican/Cuban born and raised in New York City. Thomas’ book would become the seminal book from this era. El Museo del Barrio, founded in 1969 by a group of Puerto Rican artists, educators, community activists and civic leaders, provided a bona fide haven and venue for Puerto Rican, Caribbean and Latin American artists. Soon to follow was the founding of Boricua College in 1974, which was designed to serve the educational needs of Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics. So it was during this cultural activism that a new generation of writers evolved and began to give expression to their experiences as an often-despised minority group. The result: a purely “Nuyorican” poetics, which employed innovative narrative forms, language and themes that appeared in their creative works.
This literature would become distinct in that it uses the words of everyday speech among Puerto Ricans in New York, of what is popularly known as “Spanglish” but can be more aptly described as “code-switching,” which is the back and forth shift between English and Spanish within a framework that is predominately English. In psychological terms, it is the obsession of maintaining an identity with two islands: Manhattan and Puerto Rico. Some of the writers credited for creating and shaping Nuyorican poetry include: Miguel Algarin, Tato Laviera, Miguel Piñero, Marita Morales, Bittman “Bimbo” Rivas, Willie Perdomo, Sandra Maria Esteves, Victor Hernández Cruz, Pedro Pietri and Jesús Papoleto Meléndez. It was these and other events that would help shape Papo’s writing and the oral delivery of his work.
With the publication of his poem, “Message To Urban Sightseers” in Talkin’ About Us (NY, 1969), and his first volumes of poetry, Casting Long Shadows (NY, 1970), Have You Seen Liberation (NY, 1971), and Street Poetry & Other Poems (Barlenmir House, NY 1972), firmly established Papo as a poet and one of the founders of the Nuyorican movement. His play, “The Junkies Stole The Clock,” was the first production of the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre’s Nuyorican Playwright’s Unit in April, 1974.
By 1980, disillusioned by the politics of the city, Papo left New York for the “greener pastures” of California where he continued to write, perform, teach and eventually published the poetry collection, Concertos On Market Street in 1993, merging his Nuyorican melodies with a Southern California sensibility. When he returned to New York in the mid-1990s, Papo, who was now a father, uncle and grandfather, was still engaged in a poetry that sings to struggling people. He had not wavered in his ideals, yet he sought to write in ways that would allow him to define not only his own values, but also his creative imagination.
As a performance-poet, Papo has distinguished himself as a dynamic presenter of his works in the oral tradition. His poetry seems to “jump from the page” in its written form, stylized in a technique of word-visualization that Papo often refers to as “Cascadance,” where oral presentation becomes a melodic processional sound of syllables, which personify the words’ images and feelings.
A poetry-facilitator working in the public schools, Papo’s career spans over 30-years, during which time he has coordinated many successful “Poetry/Creative Writing” workshops, affecting the lives of thousands of young people. He has developed a unique program that offers cross-curriculum creative writing experiences, emphasizing poetic form and expression, while merging computer desktop publishing techniques and technology in the classroom. Having taught for the San Diego City Schools district through the California Poets In The Schools program, when he returned to New York he taught for WritersCorps and Teachers & Writers Collaborative (T&W), ironically where his teaching career began some thirty years ago. He is currently working work with Union Settlement Association, Adult Education Program, working in the East Harlem community he loves as he continues his unique workshop curriculum that offers creative writing and publishing experiences for his students.
Now an established poet, playwright, performer and teacher, Papo’s works have appeared in numerous anthologies, notably: The Bandana Republic: A Literary Anthology by Gang Members and Their Affiliates(2008), edited by Louis Reyes Rivera and Bruce George; In the Arms of Words: Poems for Disaster Relief(2005), edited by Amy Ouzoonian; Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam(2001), edited by Tony Medina and Louis Reyes Rivera; In Defense of Mumia (1996), edited by S. E. Anderson and Tony Medina and Unsettling America (1994), edited by Maria M. Gillan and Jennifer Gillan. He has also published in the literary journals: phati’tude Literary Magazine, A Gathering of the Tribes, and LongShot. His play, “The Junkies Stole The Clock,” was again produced in 1997 and directed by Veronica Caicedo at the Clemente Soto Vega Cultural Center in New York City.
Papo is a recipient of “The Louis Reyes Rivera Lifetime Achievement Award” (2004); a 2001 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry; an Artist for Community Enrichment (ACE) Award from the Bronx Council on the Arts (1995); and a Combo (Combined Arts of San Diego) NEA Fellowship in Literature (1988).
In this candid interview, Papo and I discuss his poetic form and expression, poetic identity, the politics of poetry, his playwriting, teaching, his relationship with Pedro Pietri and future plans for his writing.
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GD: What made you decide to chop off your hair? Your dreads were your crowning glory! When I saw your recent photos, I freaked!
PAPO: Well, my hair is longer now, it’s back down to my shoulders. I like being a Gemini, I really do. [laughs] The thing I like about Gemmies, which I find different from all the other signs, is that Gemmies are not stable . . .
GD: [laughs] No they’re not!
PAPO: [laughs] Gemmies fluctuate a lot, but let me tell you, what people don’t realize is that when you wake up in the morning, the earth is actually somewhere else – out of space – where it’s never been before, it’s not just morning, it’s something else. As the earth turns and moves, so do we. I say this because I had my hair for over 20 years and I never expected to cut it off, but there came a time, and I won’t even call it a crisis, but more like an epiphany, that it was time for me to do this. I don’t know if it had anything to do with Pedro [Pietri] but I realized that it came time to cut it, and I did. And then I discovered that I don’t like getting my hair cut and having my neck exposed, so I’m letting it grow out again.
GD: After the initial shock, I realized that your hair doesn’t define you as either a human being or a poet . . .
PAPO: Absolutely. But it also shows that I’m not afraid of change, no matter how radical it is. And the other thing I discovered is when I cut the first lock and took a close look at it, I noticed how damaged it was and that it didn’t look healthy. When I was still living in California, my hair was really healthy, it was beautiful, but looking at that lock was like looking at the wear and tear that New York City had put upon me since I came back. I knew then that cutting it off was the right decision; physically and emotionally.
GD: How do you feel about your hair and your poetry now?
PAPO: I feel great!
GD: So tell me, Papo, what inspired you to write?
PAPO: Having something to say. You know, when I was a kid, there weren’t all these literary influences that young people have today, so when I look back on how I got started, it’s really quite a big deal. Actually, my inspiration for writing came from watching Mickey Mouse on television.
And when I tell people that, they think that’s a crazy statement to make, but it’s really an esoteric, kind of cosmic thing. As a kid, I was a big fan of Mickey Mouse and when I watched the cartoons, I noticed that when Mickey Mouse ran behind a background scene, a few minutes later, I’d see the same background scene, which he already passed. This created a dilemma, because I couldn’t understand how that could be. After a while, I questioned other things about the show, the ideas behind each episode, and tried to capture it in my head, which is really what the arts are all about, you see. So one day it finally clicked that somebody wrote this stuff down, that somebody wrote how the mouse would come into the room, run past the lampshade, run past the sofa and end table, you know what I mean? And that’s when it occurred to me that in order to capture the moment, you should write down what you’re thinking about. So Mickey Mouse really was my initial inspiration to create and write.
“People think that inspiration is like a firecracker or a super nova in your head, and it could be that . . . But I guess in my case, the minute I see the irony, I’m inspired to write a poem.”
GD: So when did you begin reading your works? What was that first experience like?
PAPO: I started reading my works when I was around 17, that’s around 1967, and I remember my first gig was at this club, a little coffeehouse called the Inner Sunset, down on 96th Street off of Broadway. I went down there to read because they had a band and my friends were in the band and they told me to come down and read some of my poetry, and I did, it was an exciting thing. At first it wasn’t so great, at first it was arduous and awkward because I thought people weren’t listening, but then, when I finished reading my poetry I found that people were very receptive and dug my work, which was really cool because it gave me the incentive to write and read more of my work. But here’s the thing: even though the idea of Nuyorican poetry had not yet emerged and the concept was not yet planted in my head, I knew that I was doing poetry, and when I think back, I think that’s very cool because my writing wasn’t limited by any particular genre.
So I decided I was going to be a poet, but I didn’t think of myself as a poet at the time. I was aware of the idea of it and, was left to try and figure out what I was going to do with it. But there were not that many roads available, there wasn’t some famous Puerto Rican poet that I could use as a guide. Plus, we weren’t brought up to think that we could become writers, you don’t grow up with that idea in your head. At the same time, I was lucky, because I was surrounded by other people who were trying to get into writing, so we kind of grew up together, traveling on unmapped territory.
GD: How did you get hooked up with teaching workshops?
PAPO: I was about 18 years old and was in an Upward Bound program for summer school and was recruited to tutor an English regents class; it was my job to try to get them through the New York Regents exams. And during the late 1960s, early 1970s, organizations like Teachers & Writers Collaborative (T&W) were looking for writers of color to go into the inner city schools to do their program. And let me just say this – they could have easily sent white writers, which they had already done, because you know a writer is a writer. Period. And a good teacher/writer is able to work with all children and devise meaningful lesson plans that will impact the lives of the kids, regardless of who the kids are and what reading level they’re at. However, T&W recognized the importance of developing an ethnic connection to the population they were trying to impact, so they really went out of their way to look for a well-rounded variety of black and Latino teacher/writers. And so people like Pedro [Pietri], Victor Cruz, and even Felipe Luciano began to teach workshops. I say even Felipe Luciano, because I know that he has poetic credits, but being a poet is more than just having poetic credits. Poetry has a lot of prodigal sons and daughters, people who come and go, you know.
GD: One of the things about your poetry is that you tell stories. For example, your poem, “A San Diego/Southern African Night” is a perfect example of your story telling techniques.
PAPO: Okay, but you’re telling me that?
GD: But Papo, don’t you think your poems tell stories?
PAPO: Well, I can see what you’re saying. I can see where you can be entirely right, or that it could be part of something else. “A San Diego/Southern African Night,” is a story that came about by accident . . . I wasn’t sitting on my window sill looking for a story with a pen and a pad in my hand . . . I just happen to look out the window and witnessed what was going down, an altercation between a black guy and this cop, which ended with the black guy getting a jay walking ticket. And here’s the irony . . . after the black guy got the ticket, he continued to jay walk. And when he passed underneath my windowsill, I could hear him mumbling, “I know I’m not white, I know I’m not white, I know I’m not white,” and that’s when it hit me that the whole fucking thing was a cool, anti-racist poem. So I ran to my desk, sat down and began writing it, kind of like backwards, you know, from “I know I’m not white.” Then I realized I needed to tell the story from the beginning, and so the poem begins with, “There’s a black man, / A man whose skin is black / the color / blacK,” and after I finished telling the story, I went back and added a disclaimer, which I put in parenthesis at the beginning of the poem, which says “Oh i have no opinion / Of What My Eyes See.” The reason why I added the disclaimer is that I wanted the reader to understand that this was an observation, that this was really not my opinion, which I felt got me off the hook, because I wasn’t thinking in terms of story telling but more about sharing a life observation.
So while I can agree that many of my poems tells stories, I don’t know if I feel comfortable being called a story teller because I don’t think all of my poems tell stories, per se. For example, “Poem for My Father” is really a poem about the color green. I was sitting on a hilltop someplace in San Diego on my dad’s birthday and I was just observing the scenery, and noticed how this little hill rolled down into trees, bushes, shrubbery and all of this greenery, and it hit me that the color green comes in different shades. So that poem doesn’t set out to tell a story, it’s just fooling around with the color green and in trying to explain the color green, it led me into this memory about my dad, which is different, at least to me, than actually telling a story.
GD: You developed a specific cadence in your poetry that is evident not only on the page but also when you perform your works, which by the way, is a bitch to typeset! [laughs]
PAPO: It’s just based on “spaceness.” And I am not trying to create an image . . . a face, a tree or a cat, you know what I mean? It’s just a movement of the words in relationship to themselves and what they’re talking about and also, the power of the single word itself. For example, if you have a sentence of six words, and start eliminating words from that and still have the same meaning, you’ve created a very interesting dynamic that captures the reader’s attention.
GD: But the other part of it is you have a specific cadence in your poetry, a style that’s not only on the page but also when you perform your works. How did you come about developing your poetic style? Because it is very specific.
PAPO: That’s a very good question. All of my poems, to me, have always had an intonation to them, and I think that’s really part and parcel to the nature of writing poetry anyway. My poetry is different from the traditional iambic pentameter. It’s not linear because it cascades and goes down the page like an escalator.
GD: Yes, because how you read your poetry or how your poetry is read is also the way you typeset it. It’s all connected.
PAPO: Yeah, and people can read my poems the way they’re meant to be read and listened to. I really think they can do that. They have a musicality to it because they are laid out really like musical notes. I was reading a poem to myself earlier today from Concertos. I was thinking about this line that really hit me, and it’s in “A Conversation with Blind Man“:
He could never see ,This Scene just passed my eyes: i t bi t ty ty flowErBLOS SOMS sleeping inab unch &a regular, old pesky housefly LanDs so ex ac Tl y on just one
You see the two syllables coming straight down “so / ex / ac / Tl,” you seem, and then the “y” hangs out; and it’s just on one line, so I’ve actually established a visual. Look at “flowEer / BLO / SOMS / sleeping / inab / unch.” They are all bunched together and made up of capital and small letters, to look like the blossoming of the flowers.
GD: Papo, you’ve been doing this for years, creating poems visually that transition from “the page to the stage.”
PAPO: That’s right. The poems are projected in an obscure, geometric, oblong layout, where the line breaks are already incorporated, so the reader gets to experience it visually as well as orally.
GD: Well, you’re proof that it can be done because there are many people who create their work for the page and not for the stage. Then there are a lot of people who write for the stage, but when you look at it on the page, there is no connection.
GD: Do you think all poems should be written for the page and the stage?
PAPO: Well, I’m able to do it because I come from a literary background, when teachers taught us how to write, you see. And they taught us grammar and composition, the shit you really need to know in order to write, besides “expression.” Teachers taught us these things and then we used our personal expression to enhance and guide our work. I don’t know if that’s going on in the schools now, but I do think people are appropriating language in such a way that they’re writing how ever the hell they want. Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, but then when you look at the consequences of that you can see that it’s a formula for digression [laughs], and that to me is a cause for alarm. But this is part of a larger problem, we’ve got a lot of digression going on in our society in that people really don’t care about each other until they see someone bloodied, and by then in most cases, it’s too late. But it’s not entirely their fault for feeling this way; it’s our society and the way we’re living today. Look at the economy, and how crooks and thieves and scoundrels took it away from us. We’re involved in these wars, people are getting laid off, we’re living in constant fear and chaos, and we’re always looking for shortcuts; so it’s hard for people to care about how to write or read a poem, they’re just trying to survive. So there goes the poem! [laughs]
GD: Well, one thing is certain, most of your poems have humor in it. Even when you tackle anger and pain, you manage to slip some humor in. Where did you get this humor from and how do you balance the irony and the humor in your work?
PAPO: Okay, that’s a good question. One of my philosophies is that life is a cosmic irony and so if you take that as the premise, then everything is kind of comical, no matter what. When you begin to weigh the significance of things, they all wind up being small, no matter how great things seem to be, because in the end, everything is really relative to the situation at hand.
GD: I notice that when you read a very serious poem, all of the sudden you’ll get a chuckle out of the audience because there’ll be that ironic point that you planted right in the middle of the poem. And although the poem is making a serious observation, you’ll snap the audience to attention with that ironic twist, which in some ways, is almost ridiculous, making us think twice about the seriousness of the situation.
PAPO: Yeah, I agree, but what we’re really talking about is inspiration, how an individual comes to see things. People talk about inspiration, right, like I was inspired to write this, and I was inspired to write that, and I guess they are. But inspiration is not what it seems. You know, people think that inspiration is like a firecracker or a super nova in your head, and it could be that, you know. I also think that inspiration is subtle too, and that has its own nuance. But I guess in my case, the minute I see the irony, I’m inspired to write a poem.
“We just don’t get to see true talent or great art any more, just a watered down version of what it could be. It’s immediate and instant and society buys into it. We don’t demand excellence anymore, we take what they give us so they can make the quick buck.”
GD: Ahhhhhh. Then my next question is what audience do you imagine for your poetry?
PAPO: Oh that’s the good thing about poetry, is that I don’t imagine an audience. Never. It’s like their tough luck if they come across the poem [laughs] and they don’t get it. Now, I say that because when I tried to write a journalistic piece, I failed miserably. Having never taken any journalism courses, I just bought myself a pad for the occasion, and got my tape recorder ready, and I interviewed this guy in California who had gotten into a scuffle with the police and shot a police officer. Big news in San Diego and I wanted to get his viewpoint because he was getting assassinated by the press. I interviewed him and his family and in the end, I couldn’t write the fucking thing because I kept getting subjective, understand? And while I was writing the piece, I kept perceiving the audience, what are they going to think, and how I can get them to think from a different viewpoint and finally I said, damn, this shit is hard, I’ll just go write some poetry [laughs].
GD: Now I got a stupid question for you: What is the difference between Chicano, Latino and Spanish literature, and how do you fit in that.
PAPO: The point of the asshole who is viewing it that way.
GD: Is it that Spanish speaking people write under one umbrella or is there a difference? I mean, you lived in Spanish communities on both coasts and on the island, so is there a difference?
PAPO: I don’t know Gabrielle, I don’t know. Look, I even have problems with the word “Nuyorican.”
GD: Well let’s talk about Nuyorican,” let’s talk about your place in that movement, and what is it that’s changed that you now have a problem with the term “Nuyorican”?
PAPO: I think there is a difference between being a shaper of a movement as oppose to blazing the trail once the movement has been established, so there are a lot of people, people you probably never heard of, like Bimbo Rivas, who shaped the Nuyorican movement, but who did not “blaze the trail.” And then there are people like Sandra Maria Esteves and Willie Perdomo who came along and affirmed and shaped that trail. As for me, I don’t necessarily consider myself a trailblazer or a shaper. Part of my reasoning is that I’m not well-known beyond the Nuyorican circle because I haven’t published nearly as much as Pedro [Pietri] and Victor [Hernandez Cruz], or acquired notoriety like Miguel [Algarin], Tato Laviera and Miguel Piñero, who helped establish the Nuyorican Café. But I’m currently working to change that by getting more of my works published and getting out there to do more readings. I think the most significant part about shaping a movement is to speak out and demand to be heard, and in that regard, I think I was instrumental. But I’d like to think I was instrumental as a poet, not just because I’m Puerto Rican. You see, it’s just like black writers were not being heard because no one was paying attention to them in the mainstream, so from that emerged the Black Arts Movement, which was an important breakthrough. But getting past that, can’t [Amiri] Baraka just be a poet, does he always have to be labeled as a black poet, you know what I’m saying?
When I started writing, there was none of those things, it was just writing. And that’s good and bad. Check that out. Because on the one hand that gives you a certain degree of naivety. I didn’t come from a literary family, you know, they hardly read books, I was just going around figuring the shit out as I was doing it. School taught us about British and American literature, but they didn’t teach us about the Beatniks or what they were doing at the time. No one was teaching us about Puerto Rican writers, or Spanish writers. Hell, no one was teaching us about black writers either, so you find yourself writing in kind of this vacuum so I just wrote about who I am, what I saw and what I felt, without any labels. So since there was nothing to emulate from, I just wrote to express myself. Like today, I got a paper cut. Now does it matter that I’m a Puerto Rican and got a paper cut?
On the other hand, it’s to my benefit when people label me as “Papoleto, Nuyorican poet” because other Nuyoricans or other Puerto Rican poets, or people trying to find their identity might gravitate towards me because of that. But this can also work to my detriment, because another segment of society might not want to read my work. That’s because they have an assumption and a preconceived notion from the label itself and get tuned out before they even look at the work, and that’s not fair to me as a poet. I’m not denying my heritage, I just have mixed feelings about the labels we put upon ourselves as human beings, and especially as poets.
GD: But then how do you feel about the way the literatures have recently been split up into all these different categories?
PAPO: “Ode to My Paper Cut.” Well, see, they are fucking everything up. This society, this American society, is out to get you, it’s like a monster that feeds on itself, you know. So everything is getting watered down, everything is so immediate, so quick and fast so they can make the big bucks. For example, Americans make great movies, they know how to use the technology, but do they really make great films? And it’s the same thing with music, you go through the music store and see all these CDs and people you’ve never heard of before in all genres, whom you’ll never hear from again. We just don’t get to see true talent or great art any more, just a watered down version of what it could be. It’s immediate and instant, and society buys into it. We don’t demand excellence anymore, we take what they give us so they can make the quick buck. And cutting everything up into different categories is just another way to sell it on the market.
But don’t get me wrong, I am not against the multicultural thing, I believe in culture; we’ve learned a lot from it because it shows everyone how much we are the same. Unfortunately, the sad thing about culture is that’s often used to separate people and as artists, we’ve bought into all this shit, which is why I said society is out to get us.
GD: So what are you saying, that today’s poetry is more pop than poetry?
PAPO: Well no, not poetry, but its prodigal daughters and sons, which would be hip hop and rap. I’m not against hip hop and rap, I just think these art forms deny their lineage in a lot of ways. What I find even more interesting is the arguments that have been raised about hip hop’s survival, because poetry doesn’t ask itself that question. But hip hop as poetry that is thoughtfully well written will survive because it’s part of a literary art form, you know.
But you see, it’s all about instant gratification, churning it out, making a hit . . . the immediacy society demands. Everyone’s a poet. Everyone’s a rap artist. But do they think about what they’re writing, does the work have any merit? To contemplate, to think things through is a bore and a drag, because it’s so time-consuming, especially in this day and age, but as living beings, contemplation is part of who we are. You can see the monkey on the tree contemplate some shit, you know. You can see the lion in the bushes contemplate some shit. So as human beings, we have the ability to contemplate and think things through, but we don’t. So I worry about people’s attention spans, especially kids, because things are getting done so quickly. In one sense, the stuff they churn out is technically perfect, like the movies and the CDs, but does any of it have any really meaning? Is any of it true art?
When hip hop, rap, and spoken word performers declare they are not part of poetry, I look at it like a potted plant. You can buy an hibiscus in a pot and yeah, it’s hibiscus, but it doesn’t know where the hell it came from, because it’s in a pot. Once upon a time its “roots and dirts” [laughs], lived some place else, so if it has a memory, it may remember [laughs louder], but I doubt it. And so it goes with hip hop and rap.
GD: What do you mean when you say that you are “coming up against the limits of what poetry can do for you”?
PAPO: I don’t know when I said that and why, but when writers dedicate themselves to their work, there are no limits. I think of Jean Cocteau who was, among other things, a poet, novelist, playwright and filmmaker. He wrote and directed the Orphic Trilogy [which consists of the films, The Blood of a Poet (1930), Orpheus (1949) and Testament of Orpheus (1960)]. And in his last film, Testament of Orpheus, he’s actually in the film, and towards the end, there’s a tribunal, and he’s one of the judges and he says, “Some of us are condemned to be judges.” [laughs] What Cocteau is doing is he’s revisiting the characters he created in the first two films, and in the last film he is having a personal relationship with his characters because he is in the film with them. And I think this speaks to the relationship between the writer, his work and his characters. This is what makes a good writer, a great writer. I don’t know if you see this connection, especially now in this generation of writers, but it seems to me that right now, the work I’m seeing, on a whole, is extremely disposable.
GD: What do you mean by “disposable”?
PAPO: What can I say? If all these things were crumbs of bread, Hansel & Gretel would have a hard fucking time finding their way out of the forest [laughs].
GD: So you’re saying that people are leaving a trail, but there is no substance to the work?
PAPO: Yes, that’s what I feel.
GD: Do you think it’s the commercialization of poetry in recent years?
PAPO: I don’t think poetry has been commercialized at all, I think it’s been co-opted into something else but doesn’t call itself poetry.
It calls itself “lines” or “spoken word” . . . only the people who are involved in that, who understand that would say they are writing poetry. You see, you can’t stop someone from saying they’re a poet. So if you say you’re a poet, fine. I’m not going to ask you to prove it. But there are things that tell me whether or not you’re a poet, because being a poet is actually not a lifestyle, but it’s a way of being and living. The main thing about poets is sacrifice . . . it’s being at the cutting edge and you can either stand on one side or the other of the blade. That’s what determines whether you’re a poet or not.
GD: Many people don’t realize that you are a playwright, and I just want to get into why and when did you write your first play?
PAPO: I’ve been working on plays since I was a little kid. I used to have little soldiers and building blocks and what I would do is make a fort, and then play it out. So I had a plot, it wasn’t just a battle; it had a goddamn story line. And I didn’t write it down because I didn’t know how to write and besides, I wasn’t thinking about that. So to me that’s where my initial theater experience comes from. Then when I was living in Manhattan, I went to the Boy’s Club everyday after school. There weren’t any after school programs, so my family had to pay for it. It cost 45 cents to join, from September to the end of May, which may not seem much by today’s standards but back then, that was considered a lot of money.
One of the first things I bumped into was the Playmaker’s Unit, which was in the basement at the Boy’s Club. They also had a canteen where you could buy candy, soda and stuff like that in the basement. So one day when I was buying candy, this white guy walked in with sandy blond hair, who by the way, looked like a Martian to me because he looked so out of place. Well any way, he asked me, with a big smile on his face, would I be interested in acting, and told me about the Drama Club. Of course, I had no idea what “acting” was at the time, but I let him take me into the Drama Club with some other kids and when we got there, the people were sitting around talking theater. So we started putting on plays and I’m nine years old! And we’re building sets, we’re making costumes, we’re studying scripts, we’re learning rhymes, you know what I mean? And it was cool.
GD: So this experience led you to writing plays?
PAPO: I got to see things, I got to see them written, I learned to set up lights and the sets, I learned the whole experience of plays. I did that until I was 14 years old when we moved to the Bronx. I was also involved in plays in school so when I went to the Bronx, I was in shock.
You know, I was just moving around without direction or an anchor. I think that if I had someone around to consistently push me and say, “look, you should focus on this” I would have evolved at a faster pace; but I did meet some people along the way that did provide me with insight. Gordon Duffy. I still remember him to this day. He was the drama teacher, and he was a great guy, a wonderful, wonderful teacher. He was probably making just a little bit of money you know, doing what we do, teaching creative writing in the classroom, but he did a lot of good for me and the other kids. He worked with us. So yeah, that’s when I realized you could put your imagination down on paper. And I started thinking more profoundly about writing my own plays.
GD: So when did you officially write your first play?
PAPP: I wrote my first play when I was 16 years old. It was called “The Silent Words of Love,” a teenaged love story that I wrote while I was in the Upward Bound program. My English teacher had recommended me for this program and I joined it when it had just started. I wasn’t into any of this; I just went with the flow. And that was the flow, these little opportunities that would come along. And I remember showing my English tutor at the program all of my writings, and she was the one who told me that they were poems, to my astonishment. I didn’t think they were poems.
This is very significant because it was good to meet people during this time in my life that did encourage me. Because later on as you get older you’ll eventually run across a whole bunch of people who will try to discourage you. That’s why, when I teach workshops I always try to keep things positive, there’s no sense in trying to make things negative for your students. And if you do, you shouldn’t be fucking teaching. At all.
“Sometimes when I’m walking down a street that Pedro and I used to walk on, and I look at my shadow on the sidewalk, I can see Pedro’s silhouette, so he’s with me all the time.”
GD: How many plays have you written versus how many have been produced over the years?
PAPO: Well, “The Junkies Stole the Clock” is really the only play that got produced and “Dining Outside.” “Dining Outside” had a weekend production, and that was back in 1978.
GD: But didn’t you have a recent production on “Junkies”? Didn’t Veronica [Caciedo] do that?
PAPO: “Junkies” was originally done in 1974 at the Public Theatre. It was the first production of the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Nuyorican Playwrights’ Unit. The very first production. It took six months to get it together . . . we were all new at this and there were things we just didn’t know or didn’t handle very well . . . . But anyway, it had ten showings, it was well received and slated to go to Off-Broadway, and it should of at that time because it had everything going for it, all the elements were in place for it to happen, but it didn’t.
What’s sad about it is that I know now what a difference a day makes, how history changes everything when certain things happen and don’t. And I know the reason why the play didn’t go forward is because inside and outside forces prevented it from happening,
GD: What made you decide to revive “Junkies”?
PAPO: After the play premiered at the Festival and it became clear it wasn’t going to go anywhere, you begin to think differently. Basically, Joe Papp said, “Hey, thank you very much, here’s a few hundred dollars, and now I’m going to do this other play,” and when he did that, as a writer you start rethinking this shit, you know what I mean? And there was nobody else who was going to pick up this play, and then as you go through this process of rejection, you begin to see things differently and as a result, I started to get a little more political.
This was due, in part, to the historical events happening around me at the time, and I began to see things more seriously. So I started to rewrite “Junkies” because I believed the play could offer a more “global” perspective rather than the way I originally wrote it, which was about these kids in the Bronx. Like the film, Out of Africa is not really a film about Africa, it’s really this love story between these two people that happen to be in Africa, you know what I’m saying? When I look back, I realize that this is yet another lesson learned, that in most cases you should leave the work alone once you’ve completed it, or you can end up like a fanatic and find yourself working on it forever. I think [Walt] Whitman worked on Leaves of Grass until he died.
I’m not saying either way is right or wrong, but for me at this point in time, “Junkies” remains unrequited. Right now, I’m trying to take it to the next level by doing it as a short film, only because I think it deserves better.
GD: But what made you revive it with Veronica, in its current form?
PAPO: When I came back from California, I had met Veronica at one point, and she told me she wanted to do it, and, I’m not going to say “no” because it’s hard to get a play done, what they call “mounted.” So she actually did it twice, first as a showcase with some actors and then she did a full production. But I want to do a film version of it because I understand it differently now and I can cut things out it and return it to the simple story it originally was, about teenagers in the Bronx. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of disposability going on in the arts. There’s disposable poetry and disposable spoken word, people are creating sculptures of ice in the desert sand [laughs], but I think there are writers out there who are dedicated to their works and to the things they write about because their work is like their children. I’m dedicated to “Junkies” in that I want to get it right. . . . There are a lot of stories told; a great many of them are stupid, yet a great many of them are important. Right now, it’s sort of like a “broken egg” type of thing and in the end, I want “Junkies” to be an important piece of work.
GD: Well, now that we’ve established your poetry and playwright credits, tell me, with all these current trends with Latino literature and literature in general, where do you think your works fit in this panorama.
PAPO: Well, you know that’s an interesting question too, because I am not writing for Puerto Ricans. You see, Woody Allen once said that no matter what he writes, he’s always writing as a Jewish writer, so yes I’m always writing as a Puerto Rican even if it’s “Ode to My Paper Cut.” Now if Puerto Ricans read it and find their affinity with it, that’s up to them, you know, but I’m not going to put baya in my “Ode to My Paper Cut” because if I don’t put that in they’re not going to read it.
GD: So you’re basically saying writers should really be true to themselves and not necessarily to a specific genre or niche.
PAPO: At least that’s how I view it, because you make your own genre, your own niche. We were talking about particular elements of my poetry, the story telling, the humor and the irony, you know what I mean? That and my humanity is the thread of my poetry, my own niche, how I look at life. Having humanity doesn’t mean that you’re a humanitarian [laughs], your humanity defines how the hell you behave in life [laughs]. It could go either way, you know. For example, Hitler’s humanity was inhumane [laughs louder].
GD: Well, there is this expectation from you to write about El Barrio. Do you plan on writing a book about El Barrio?
PAPO: I really haven’t really started writing about El Barrio specifically, because I have other things I’m working on, but I think El Barrio will always be in some facet of my work somehow, because that’s where I come from. All writers come from somewhere. [William Butler] Yeats, [Percy Bysshe] Shelley, [William] Shakespeare and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, they all come from somewhere. And wherever they come from, that’s how we associate them as to who they are, you know, and that’s not a bad thing to do. For example, a poet from San Francisco will look at things and write things differently than a poet from New Jersey.
So the really cool thing about my work is that you can hear where I come from. And I think you can really hear that in “¡Hey Yo / Yo Soy!” It’s interesting because people from the east coast hear El Barrio, but they also hear the west coast influences, the Mexican and Native American cadence in “¡Hey Yo / Yo Soy!“ And ironically, the people on the west coast hear all of that, but they also hear the Nuyorican influence in the poem. Yeah, that’s a good poem for that, it’s like . . . “Sybil” [laughs].
GD: It’s no secret that you and Pedro Pietri were good friends . . . you took care of him during his illness and was with him when he died. Let’s talk a little bit about your relationship with him and how his death has affected you.
PAPO: Pedro was my best friend and I believe that I was his. I say that because of lot of people loved Pedro and Pedro loved a lot of people, so saying someone is your best friend is a big calling especially when you’re talking about a person like Pedro. But then, I think I’m a pretty fantastic person myself [laughs] so it’s kind of natural that we would either form a bond or repel from each other. And then too, as you know, a lot of writers don’t get along with each other, because they’re usually competing for the same things. Sometimes we did, but there was always this balance and the competitive thing never corrupted our relationship.
Very early on in our career as writers, when I first met Pedro, I had already published a book and my play, “Junkies,” was out there, so at the time I was basically on my way. I knew of Pedro and I was actually at the church [The First Spanish United Methodist Church in East Harlem, which became the stage for Pedro’s first public reading of “Puerto Rican Obituary” when the Young Lords briefly took over the church in 1969], when he read the poem, but I didn’t know him at the time. I did say hello to him that night when he was coming off the stage. He walked through the audience and I was near the back when he passed by me so I said “hello,” but he was in some kind of euphoric high and had a chick under each arm, you know [laughs] . . . I don’t think he ever saw me!
I eventually met Pedro at a poetry reading at Brooklyn College and we forged a friendship so close that some people thought we were gay [laughs] . . . I can assure you that Pedro and I were two heterosexual guys looking for chicks all the time [laughs harder]. I have to admit, he was often more successful than me when it came to women, because he was bold and a little bit crazier than me.
When we were younger, we were basically out of our minds half the time. We really mellowed over the years, people don’t realize this, but we did . . . they can’t imagine how off the hook we really were in our youth. But even with that part of our relationship, we had also established a partnership. For example, not too many people know that Pedro and I collaborated and wrote together, and we actually wrote two plays. During those times there were endless nights of no sleeping, just typing, talking, writing, drinking and laughing, and it was a great experience.
Pedro’s illness, which we didn’t know about until about this time right before Thanksgiving 2003, and his subsequent death in March 2004, has been extremely devastating and a major the loss in my life. And I don’t think people really understand how attending all of these memorials and everything has not been an easy endeavor. For instance, whenever I hear Pedro’s “El Spanglish National Anthem” there comes a part when the poem says:
I know I know
I am being followed
(By my destiny)
And so And so
I will never be swallowed
De plane takes off again
I know that there will be
No return trips for me
Back to New York City
(Island blessed by the sun
Here I come Here I come
Donde my roots are from)”
and it reminds me of the airplane when Pedro cut out, you understand? I can’t hear that without my mind going back to that surreal moment.
When Pedro was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he still remained full of hope and after a number of fundraisers, the plan was for him to get this holistic treatment [in Mexico]. I was working at the time but I couldn’t reconcile staying in New York and wondering about what was going on with Pedro, so I wanted to go. We got three tickets on Jet Blue and Pedro, Joe [Pietri, Pedro's brother] and I made it to San Diego and onto Mexico. It started out as a 28-day trip that turned into a 43-day adventure that ended with Pedro passing away on the flight back to New York. There’s a three-minute excerpt of the 45-minute taping of that experience that’s very fresh and raw on Storycorp, which I did with Frank Perez. The rest I’ll leave for my book.
GD: What do you think Pedro’s legacy is, for you, first and foremost, and the rest of the world?
PAPO: Pedro was a great poet and a great friend. We head-butted a lot, but that’s true with most successful partnerships. Pedro had rock solid principles, he was a great patriot, he loved Puerto Rico and he loved people. More important, he loved not only poetry, but the idea of poets and poetry.
GD: What input did he have in the poetry world?
PAPO: Well, you can’t deny Pedro because we’ve all been exposed to him, he was everywhere all the time. He did everything, he was a poet, a playwright, a performer and an activist. And when I’m walking down the street, it’s like déjà vu because he and I had been there before. Sometimes when I’m walking down a street that Pedro and I used to walk on, and I look at my shadow on the sidewalk, I can see Pedro’s silhouette, so he’s with me all the time.
I’m trying to write this book about Pedro and me. I actually need a grant to stay home to do it because it’s not something you can easily do and go to work. Not only is it very difficult and time consuming, it’s emotionally draining. So I’m hoping to get a grant to create a space in time so that I can give it the attention it really deserves.
GD: What made you decide to write about your relationship with Pedro?
PAPO: It’s something that I have to do. There are people out there who did not have the experiences I shared with Pedro. There are opportunists who see a story in it for them, you know what I mean? And that’s not their reality, it’s not true for them, it’s true or me. For instance, there’s this one guy, who’s name I will not mention, who decided to write a play about what happened with Pedro at the hospital in Mexico, but his ass wasn’t even there. See, I was there. Joe was there. Me, Joe and Pedro. But the book is not only being written to tell truths, it’s also being written for me, for my peace of mind, to close a chapter, to create rebirth. It’s like cutting off my locks and having them grow back healthy. It’s a cleansing and presenting a healthy perspective about an outrageously complicated and adventurous relationship. That’s why I’m writing this book.
GD: You’ve been teaching for almost thirty years. What do you see that’s changed from the poetry workshops of 20 years ago versus what you deal with now. Do you feel the workshops help kids see themselves in poetry, is the concept still working, as effective?
PAPO: Well, I think it depends. First of all, a lot of today’s youth is pretty jaded. Well, they’re not 13 and 14 year olds like Romeo and Juliet, where love is the thing, they’re teenagers who live in a world where sex is now the thing. Also, today’s kids have what I call an accelerated “DNA knowledge base,” especially in New York City. They know a lot more than we did when we were their age, the world is faster and more open than when we came up, and it’s not just the bad kids or the kids who aren’t doing well in school, it’s all kids.
Let me give you an example. When you go into a school in New York City to do a poetry workshop, let’s say it’s a high school, you’re going into a classroom with 30 kids, and the teacher may or may not have told them that they are going to have guest for a few weeks and they’re going to do poetry with this guest. Obstacle number 1: you are going in with little to no prep and left hanging. If you get past that, then they have to deal with the fact that you’re a poet, you’re not Jay-Z. Obstacle number 2. You see, Jay-Z wouldn’t go teach a workshop. He may go do it once, but he wouldn’t do it all year long, you know, because he doesn’t have to, because he’s an artist and he goes out there to record and make money. Hey, how about that! And the final obstacle is resistance, getting past the resistance to learn something new. Like I always say, what makes education hard is people’s resistance to knowledge. If you stop resisting, you’ll enjoy yourself. If you sit there with your brow all bent out of shape, complaining “when will this end,” it’s going to take forever and you don’t get the benefit of the knowledge. But if you’re open-minded, you might find that you learn and benefit from this new stuff. So once I get past some of these obstacles, and the kids become interested in receiving me and the information, I usually have a pretty successful workshop. I then go on to teach poetry, read some of my poetry, show them other people’s poetry and depending on when and where the workshop takes place, touch on real life issues and experiences, and so on.
Teaching outside of New York is a little easier. I did this workshop in Jersey, in Hoboken, and I found the kids to be less jaded, compared to New York. New York to them was still a whole world, somewhere else, even though it’s like only a 15 minute bus ride away. And I got the impression that they do go to New York occasionally to adventure, you know, but not that much. So subsequently, they were more receptive to me and the poetry. It was a really good workshop, we talked about different things, and it still had an edge to it. When I taught in San Diego, the workshops were far easier because again, the kids had a different sensibility to life, they weren’t as haggard and harassed as the kids in New York City. They were all going through the usual teenage stuff, but it was far easier, although I think if I were to go back there now, it would be different. In this country I have no reason to believe that its gotten better, especially for the kids, because to me, just like the universe is either contracting or expanding, I know that life in the United States is digressing [laughs]. So when you go and do poetry workshops, those are the dynamics you deal with and sometimes there are a lot of things that you’re up against. But in the end, I manage to disseminate the information and have decent and even successful workshops.
GD: At the end of the day when you finish doing your workshops, are you able to get something out of it.
PAPO: Well at the end of the day I want to come home and have a drink because some of these workshops can really zap your energy. You have to understand that writing is basically a solitary craft, you’re constantly thinking, reading and writing. Now you have to deal with commuting, sleeping, working on a schedule and reviewing other people’s work. I think I speak for all writers that at times we find that incredibly frustrating, because all we want to do is write, but then again, we got to eat too [laughs]. But when you go out there and do these workshops . . . you’re always going to get something out of it. Today, a kid in a fourth grade Special Ed class wrote a poem (based on a cartoon that I had brought for the class to see), which he dictated to me and I wrote on the chalk board for him. Now, there were six kids in that class, but he is the only one who did anything. And he was happy he did it, and he will probably never forget what he did that day. So there was definitely something accomplished today.
GD: Let’s talk about two more things, you’ve become one of the most important poets of the Latino community . . .
PAPO: I don’t know, I don’t even know if that’s true, I don’t know if anybody knows that, or you’re just saying that, but go ahead . . .
GD: . . . and you’ve always been a political activist. A lot of your poems are political and . . .
PAPO: I don’t think my poems are political, people say that, but I think that they are social.
GD: So let’s take a minute to clarify this point.
PAPO: I look at my poems as social commentary. Everything stems from snapshots of everyday life, they capture a moment in time, and then sometimes the poems are abstract in what they are talking about. So in these snapshots, you can usually find a political or social message within each poem, but more often than not, you have to look for it, like the poem, “Two Women Sitting.” When I first wrote the poem, I thought it was a guy and a girl, but when I looked closer, I also saw it as two women. And I said to myself, gee, this is very interesting, this could work, and decided to go another way with it, but it could still be a man and a woman, you know what I mean?
Then there is another poem I wrote, called “Indentured.” One day I was walking down 125th street and I saw this old black guy who had a dust pan and a broom, and he was chasing this empty paper bag that was twirling around in the wind that kept eluding him. So I passed by him to be able to observe him more closely, and said to myself “dig this guy. He is about 80 fucking years old, we’re in Harlem and here he is, chasing an empty bag of potato chips, what’s this all about?” So do you blame the wind, for instance, or is it really the wind’s fault? Or when you dig deeper, is it his circumstance brought on by the world? I’m just wondering about this man’s circumstance, does it run deeper than him chasing this paper bag? What does it all really mean?
Here’s where the social and political commentary could come into play, but what it boils down to is really in the eyes of the beholder.
GD: So what you’re saying is that you believe there is politics and social statements in all poetry, you just have to look for it?
PAPO: Well, some people will have a problem with your conclusion. A lot of people from the 1960s think “everything is political,” it’s one of their mantras. [laughs] And, it’s probably true. It’s kind of hard to separate them, the political and social from the poem, when you come to think about it. But then again, I’ve found that people are not as “political” as they proclaim to be. For instance, there was this controversy going on with El Museo del Barrio and their “Spic-up/Speak Out” series. We tried pushing the issue on FaceBook, but people in general were so reticent about it . . . they either commented indirectly about it or instead were busy posting things that I find irrelevant like, “I bought a new pair of shoes today,” like who cares? So what I’m saying is that you can go out of your way to create political or social poetry, but the poem itself requires give and take, from both the poet and the person who’s reading it. What does the reader take from this? Is the reader willing to participate in the process? That’s what I’m talking about.
GD: Then do you consider yourself a social activist as opposed to a political activist?
PAPO: Well no, no, you see Gabrielle . . . I’m just a poet who happens to be Puerto Rican, you know, who’s associated with this thing, the Nuyorican poets’ movement, which you know I have kind of mixed emotions about. You see over here [New York] you can easily get into this identity crisis, as to who the hell you are and why you write the way you do, you know. And I think it complicates things, because I’m just trying to write. Why do I have to write a book of poems about El Barrio, instead of just writing a book of poems, which could be about anything, while living in El Barrio. That’s the thing that I am into right now, writing and just being a good poet . . . without the labels. Since I am Puerto Rican, since the world is full of social and political turmoil, because I am from El Barrio, it should be evident in the final package.
GD: All this does is verify the fact that your social is political.
PAPO: Well [laughs], what I’m saying is that here I am, a little starburst hanging out with the other little starbursts in this little planet here, and all I’m doing is writing about what I see going on. So to me, if that’s political, then that’s the other little starbursts’ problem [laughs].
GD: So, what inspires you to continue writing?
PAPO: Well, writing saves your life. All art does that. I think that’s the real bottom line purpose of art, is to save life. And so if you are an artist, or even if you’re not an artist . . . I mean, what is an artist, someone who is always doing art, someone who is trying to get paid for doing art? [Pablo] Picasso said all children are artists, the trouble is remaining a child, okay, and I think that’s a good premise to work on, because I don’t believe there is no real difference between a person who calls themselves an artist versus a “regular” person because all people are inherently artistic.
Check that out. So look what happens when you take art into an old folk’s home, whether you give them paint brushes or a writing workshop, new life begins to happen. Life goes through ups and downs and when you find your life on the outs, art is something you can hold onto, it sustains you. In my case, I can write about what’s going on, write about what I wish was going on, I can write about what I imagined, I can write about anything, you see, and that helps me get through the hard times. When I was living on skid row in L.A., I would walk out of my hotel room and look down the street and see all these people and wondered about the differences between us. In the end, I don’t know how we ended up there, but I do know what sustained me and what ultimately got me out of that situation, and it was writing.
GD: Do you think that your poetry is as it started out all these years ago? Are you still on track with what you like writing about? Or has this changed and are you pointing in a new direction?
PAPO: What I’m most concerned about right now is trying to finish what I already started. Like the book on Pedro [Pietri] and some other books of poetry, you know? I have a lot of work to do, so I don’t need to be “inspired” by anything else at this point in my life, I just need to finish it and get it published. What I really need is time. That’s like the ongoing struggle for everybody who wants to do their own thing.
The things I want to finish and publish will reveal a lot about me. I would say my readers or fans . . . but I’m thinking, do I have any real fans? And then I thought about what a fan is, and for me it’s someone who has a poem of mine on their refrigerator, you know, or something like that. So that’s what I’m most concerned about, getting the work out there and creating my own fan base. There’s a big vacuum right now, especially in this so-called Nuyorican movement. I know that people are doing things, but my question is, are they doing something with substance? Well, there’s a lot of chatter going on right now, let’s put it that way.
GD: It’s different. It’s different from when you and I first met.
PAPO: Of course it’s different, time moves on and we’re living in different times.
GD: Are there any poets on the scene right now worth mentioning?
PAPO: Well, I like what The Welfare Poets are doing, I respect them very much and there is some people around, like Mariposa (a.k.a Maria Teresa Fernandez Rosario) who is very cool and Stephanie, you know Stephanie Agosto. Stephanie is like a jazz poet, and let me see . . . oh, I can’t forget Caridad La Luz (a.k.a La Bruja), who is doing some really cool stuff.
GD: What do you see in the future for poetry, and what do you see with your poetry?
PAPO: Poetry is going to last forever, we just have to keep the poets alive by supporting them, because I too have “seen the best minds of my generation destroyed” by a whole lot of stuff. This really blows my mind, because in my lifetime I have known some really heavy duty folks who were creative, deep thinkers who really knew their shit but didn’t make it. One of the main problems they faced was the wall of the “literary canon,” which is even more difficult to penetrate when you are colored or Puerto Rican. If they had the same access, the same opportunities that white folks automatically have, they would have gotten somewhere, you know.
Obviously, I’d like not to have to work and just concentrate on writing, which is of course the writer’s ultimate dream [laughs]. Well, I need to have more time for my writing, I’m desperate for it right now. I’ve been teaching for many years and since I don’t have the luxury not to work, I think my next step would be to train people how to teach poetry workshops, because I think I have a lot to offer in that area. I want to talk to people who are putting programs together where the arts are involved.
I also want to go to universities and colleges to give talks and participate in workshops because that is where I can be the most helpful. That’s it. Read some poetry and talk to people about life and poetry, because I know a lot of shit. Sometimes it’s hard to write it all down, and I’m a very verbal person, so talking to people about the literary history, about poetry, passing on the oral narrative, is just as important as “Ode To My Paper Cut.”
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Copyright © 2010 Gabrielle David, All Rights Reserved.