[Rich Villar reports on Martín Espada's visit to the Acentos Writers Workshop]
Robert Moses, in his infinite wisdom, was the urban planner who carved out I-95 across (well, UNDER) the Bronx and Upper Manhattan, on its way up to the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey. One spot in particular is located beneath a high-rise apartment building in Washington Heights, right at the cusp of University Heights in the Bronx. Because of its central location, and because of the relatively few lanes available to traffic, even minor accidents can turn into maddening delays. When those accidents happen at the height of rush hour on one of the first warm Friday afternoons of the year, the ensuing distress to drivers in the Bronx, Manhattan, Northern New Jersey, and Westchester County is enough to make you want to curse Robert Moses to hell with General Franco and George W. Bush.
Guess where I was at 5:30pm on Friday, with a 1010 WINS report in my ear talking about 90 minute traffic delays into New York City?
Mr. Moses, meet Mr. Franco.
Any other day, I would have shrugged it off and soldiered on, but my task at that moment was to pick up Martín Espada from his hotel in Midtown and bring him to the Acentos Writers' Workshop at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, where he was slated to lead a special Friday session. Luckily, it's not a one-man operation, or even a two-man one. One quick call to Marie-Elizabeth and Taylor Mali, and the facilitator had a new ride uptown. I wanted to give them both a quick public shoutout and thanks for saving our asses. I also want to send a massive thank you to Fish Vargas, Gloria Fontanez, Start Smith, Karen Ladson, and the cadre of volunteers and supporters who bring these workshops to life.
Every Sunday at noon, Acentos hosts a group of 20-30 poets (on average) in free generative writing workshops at Hostos Community College. Poets with day jobs often find that the hardest thing about writing is finding the time to write. Here, at least once a week, they can make appointments with themselves to sit down and concentrate on nothing but poetry for two hours.
The workshops came to life under the direction of Acentos co-founder, and my partner, Sam "Fish" Vargas. Like the King of the Block he is known and loved for being, Fish wanted one place to bring together the writers from the various poetry communities he moves in. Of course, because he has attended open mics and taught workshops in multiple boros, under multiple non-profit banners and programs, there was a great deal of overlap in his students' ages, ethnicities, locations, and approaches to poetry. Steeped in his personal canon of Latino poets and their poetics, Fish was able to help this group thrive, stretch, and write from a small conference room at his job.
Like most projects, the workshop took on a life of its own. Regulars began attending. The numbers began swelling. And Fish was running out of writing exercises. So he started calling in guest facilitators. By the boatload. Through Fish's persistence, and the sheer bribery of free food, he assembled a wildly diverse list of facilitators, including past and present guests Willie Perdomo, Patrick Rosal, Ada Limón, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Aracelis Girmay, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Jeff McDaniel, Blas Falconer, Cornelius Eady, Sarah Gambito, and Corie Feiner. To name only a few.
The response to these workshops was/is nothing short of phenomenal. The crew of poets soon outgrew the conference rooms and found themselves in the fourth floor classrooms of Hostos Community College. As many as forty participants have made their way weekly to this diversely Latino neighborhood of the South Bronx, to write together, laugh, cheer, and work diligently on their poems. Even my fiancé, Tara Betts, and I have made it our weekly routine to venture from our place out in New Jersey. We do it as much to witness the response itself as to participate.
Nothing could prepare us for the response we would get when Mr. Espada, a key mentor to the Acentos organization, told us he could join us to lead a special Friday session, on May 8th. By the time the 8th rolled around, Fish's Excel spreadsheet had swelled to 107 slots.
Ms. Betts and I arrived at Hostos at 6:30pm, after some deft and slightly illegal maneuvers on the Bridge, just in time to check in participants and take in the scene prepared for us by Fish and Gloria (and her sister Carmen). The Savoy Room at Hostos had been transformed into a writing workshop space suitable for 100+ participants. On the walls hung 112 photos of headstones from St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx. Martín's workshop revolved around Edgar Lee Masters' SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY, a book of persona poems in the voices of the dead. Masters took the names from the headstones of Spoon River Cemetery. The Acentos workshop was about to do the same for St. Raymond's.
Espada started with a half-hour lecture on the life of Edgar Lee Masters, along with a reading of poems from the book itself. Some of the poems were in conversation with other poems. Most of them were highly speculative about the dead person's occupation, demeanor, relations, and relationships to the other dead people. So, taking from these cues, and keeping in mind things like birth dates and death dates, names, proximity to other headstones, and a large dose of speculation, 78 workshoppers (Attrition! Where is thy blush?) were sent wandering around the room in search of personae to write about, and through.
On this night, with Professor Espada, Latinos and Latinas were present in large numbers in the workshop...and on the headstones. This led to a great deal of poetry in Spanish, English, and code switch. Investigations into the nature and results of machismo. Investigations into the youth of St. Raymond's Cemetery. Conversations amongst the dead and the living. Monologues. Speculation. And some unvarnished truth: twelve headstones were people Fish knew personally.
We ended the night with an open mic so large, we had to draw out participants from a hat (mine). Martín, to my eyes, was moved by the turnout and by the raw talent shown in a handful of one-hour draft poems. And the participants, by and large, were moved as well. Surrounded by the denizens of St. Raymond's, with a fresh Bronx River Anthology in minds and in hands, a night of fellowship and good will among poets of all skill levels, all ages, all ethnicities, finished up a full hour behind schedule, and no one cared. Except, of course, for the intrepid cleaning crew at Hostos. (Yes, we helped them out.)
Care and feeding of a poet being primary, no Acentos workshop is complete without food. Ten poets, including Mr. Espada, made haste to Nuevo Caridad on 116th Street and 2nd Avenue in East Harlem. While I'm not particularly opposed to wine and cheese, I must say there are simply no post-poetry discussions like the ones conducted over plates of rice, beans, maduro, chicharron, tostones, bacalao, and mofongo. The talk was about poetics, our shared mission with Acentos, and some old fashioned silliness. We sang Happy Birthday, even though no one at the table was celebrating one.
This scene is what poetry is to me, and hopefully it's what we foster at Acentos: the idea that we can come together around poetry as a community of equals and peers, in our own languages, enjoying excellent writing and excellent friendship. No baggage. Just poetry. To paraphrase the brilliant 17-year-old poet Giselle Buchanan, a workshop participant and member of 2009's Urban Word NYC slam team: we knew today would be beautiful.
My thanks go out, again, to the Acentos crew who made these events possible: to Sam Vargas, and especially to Gloria Fontanez, who continues to work closely with her connections at Hostos Community College and provide these workshops with a home. At Hostos, many thanks to Dean Carlos Molina and Director Peter Martens for their support. And of course, my profound gratitude to Letras Latinas, Francisco Aragon, and Acentos co-founder Oscar Bermeo for the blog space to tell the story. Finally, a big shout to Martín Espada for his steadfast support and mentorship, and for the intrepid spirit needed to run a workshop of this size.
One postscript: A piece of this story remains unwritten. In April 2010, the Acentos organization intends to hold a first of its kind: a one-day festival of workshops, panels, and readings dedicated entirely to Latino/a poetry. Information on this event is forthcoming. I can be reached for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org. Acentos also has a presence on MySpace: www.myspace.com/acentosbronxpoetryshowcase. We can also be found on Facebook.
for the Acentos crew