Thursday, July 22, 2010

Interview: Rich Villar and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the house Miguel Algarín, Mikey Piñero and Pedro Pietri built, is New York's most iconic poetry venue. Punto. Ask the average New Yorker where they can find poetry and the answer is always the same: The Nuyo.

If anyone doubts that statement, all they need to do is look at the line that forms every Wednesday for the Open Slam. A solid hour before the show starts, the line starts to form with poets looking for a shot to read at this open slam and poet aficionados coming through to see what the Wednesday fuss is all about. Any Nuyo veteran will let you know, winning the Open Wednesday Slam is New York Slam Poetry's golden ticket—an invite to slam on Friday night.

And folks who are surprised at the long lines for the Wednesday Slam are left dumbfounded at the wait to get into the Friday slam. Rain or shine, in sweltering July humidity or freezing December chill, you can always spot folks lining up hours in advance of the Friday Night Slam to witness the poetic battleground that has spawned such luminaries as Edwin Torres, Tracie Morris, Regie Cabico, Sarah Jones, Willie Perdomo, Manny Xavier, Mayda del Vallle and Saul Williams, to name a few.

The Friday Slam is followed by the Open Room, an open mic that starts at 1:00am and can go on for hours. Legend has it Pietri would love to stop by at two in the morning and test out new material. To this day man poets drop by at this late night poetry stop just so they can say, "I've read a poem at the Nuyo."

The highest of all these accolades is to be invited by Slam Curator Mahogany Browne to feature on a Friday Night in front a standing room only crowd hungry for Nuyorican poetry. And your feature for this Friday Night? None other than Acentos Foundation director Rich Villar.

For a better sense of Nuyo history and what's going down now at the Cafe, I ask Rich a couple of questions for Letras Latinas:
Oscar Bermeo: With no advertising at all, the Friday Night Slam at the Nuyorican is consistently sold out 52 weeks a year. What do you think is the allure?

Rich Villar: Allure is a good word. I think people are attracted to what is considered outlaw, outsider, rulebreaking and such, though what it means to be “outlaw” has certainly evolved over the years. In the 90´s, when the hood was the number one heroin market on the planet, you really had to NEED to participate in something artistic for yourself and the people who live(d) there. Then when the Piñero movie hit, folks kinda wanted a piece of this bohemian oasis for themselves. Then Def Poetry hit, and suddenly folks wanted to see some of these poets they’d seen on TV up close, maybe even get to HBO themselves. Nowadays, it’s maybe not as dangerous and outsider…certainly not with a designer coffee house down the block…but it remains a mostly young and multicultural mix of folks wanting an experience that isn’t the typical Friday night lounge scene laced with banal conversation. It’s new. The slam is always new to somebody. And when it’s new in the mind, it’s usually the Nuyorican they step to first.

OB: One of your first community leadership roles was hosting the Friday Open Room. Could you talk about that experience and how it helped your growth as a community organizer?

RV: I don’t know if I would call it a community leadership role. Monday night at Bar 13 was my regular hangout. The Friday gig was cool but I always felt a little out of place at the Nuyo, because I didn’t always want to write the stuff that got over in slams, and I wasn’t hungry for a spot on the Friday slam stage. What I ended up doing was reading a lot of old-school Nuyorican poets, and chatting up Miguel (Algarín) and Julio (the door man) and Jeff Feller (the Open Room host), whoever else I could bore silly, and I became something like the unofficial heckling old fogey who was there to remind the young bucks of what poetry is supposed to mean, especially within the 30-some-odd-year-old walls of the Cafe itself. Some of the poets were receptive to it, and some were not. But Fridays were definitely part of the genesis of my critical vocabulary for poetry and performance, and it taught me how to hold on tenaciously to an artistic vision for the community you service. That’s how you earn real respect, even when the writers among you are servicing a wholly different goal, or trying to get famous, or what have you.

OB: You have great success in slam—winning Friday Night slams, making the NYC-louderARTS National Slam team, making it to the National Poetry Slam semi-finals—but your writing has taken a different direction since that success. What would you like for slam audiences and current slammers to take away after hearing your newer work?

RV: I want these audiences, especially teen slammers, to understand that having a communal experience with poems, being in a slam audience, is not always about the hot lines and the snaps and the gasps. Neither is it about a poet buried in the text with no regard for the audience. There must something in between, where the poet is a guide on a journey, telling a story, creating an arc, that everyone can enjoy together and leave with at least the seed of the idea that language defines the world we live in, that audience and poet together have a place in that defining.

OB: I haven't been to the Nuyo in over five years. What's changed since then?

A: Hands down, the biggest change has been behind the scenes. The Café has moved from something of a family operation to a true, working arts non-profit. The executive director, Daniel Gallant, has laid down some ambitious plans for expanding the second and third floors into offices, a new performance space and classrooms. During his tenure, they’ve managed to double their operating budget, hire interns, increase their programming (including during the day), and acquire a foothold in the education of teens and adults in the genres of spoken word and performance. In the next year, they plan to use video to archive the poetry happening in the space, and they will hold a festival in the fall to document the living legacy of the Cafe and include some of the newer voices coming from the slam scene and elsewhere. It sounded to me, from my brief conversations with Daniel, that the Nuyorican as an organization is invested in finally taking its place as a living, working, and VIABLE alternative arts space, one that honors its 37-year legacy and keeps a watchful eye on its future.

What was most intriguing to me, and most likely germane to the readers of this blog, was the receptiveness he showed to increasing the footprint of Latino poetry and literature, both in its critical development and presentation to different audiences, at the Cafe itself. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to seeing what develops from that.

OB: What are some of your all time favorite moments at the Nuyorican (both on and off stage)?

RV: All time favorite moment on stage at the Nuyo: When Acentos fielded a slam team consisting of Eliel Lucero, Juan Diaz, and Jessica Torres. I remember the group shot we took, both Acentos and the teams slamming that night, and thinking that maybe there’s a place for us in this craziness. That, and I remember Jessica absolutely spanked the poem she performed. She was amazing.

All time favorite moment, related to the Nuyo: On stage at Town Hall for the 35th anniversary of the Nuyorican, and Carmen Pietri-Diaz left me absolutely stunned by presenting Acentos with a bust of Pedro Pietri, in recognition of what they felt we represented for Latino poetry in New York. Think about this: My all-time favorite poet, immortalized in art, because of something I had a hand in; a capacity crowd listening to me tell them to value the art from their own communities, because no one else would; Rosie Perez telling me she was down with what I'd said. Acceptance from your literary forbears? I can dig that.

All time favorite moment, offstage at the Nuyo: Watching Willie Perdomo read from his second book Smoking Lovely. We’d been following him around like fanboys, and I think maybe he got a little freaked out by it, but it was the first instance I remember of having a living literary hero as a friend and familiar face. That is absolutely invaluable.

The Nuyorican Friday Night Poetry Slam
Featuring Rich Villar
Friday, July 23, 10:00pm
$10- Cover Charge
236 East 3rd Street Between Ave B & C
Reverend Pedro Pietri Way
New York City


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great article, Oscar. Rich--knock'em dead 2morrow. Thank you for the work you're doing.

I recently found my copy of ALOUD, which Miguel Algarin inscribed for me back in September of 1994. I met him while wandering the aisles of publisher & author tables @ The San Francisco Book Festival. An hour or so earler, I'd attended the cathartic/crowd energizing joint reading he'd done with Bob Holman and was carrying the copy of ALOUD: Voices From the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. I'd been sitting up front, smiling, basking in the streams of rhythms and words. I'd wanted to have my copy of the book signed, but chickened out. I had approached a legend of the Beat Generation for a book-signing earlier. & was leary of a repeat of the cold-shoulder I'd received from the "icon". So, I'd left the Nuyo reading without having my book signed. Then as we stopped at the same table (It was the author of Rats in The Trees' table), Miguel smiled, took my book, inscribed it, returned it, hugged me and went on. Somehow it was just what I needed.
He wrote:

Many times
I search for words
To ease,
To cure,
So here are verbs to nourish
Yourself with.
M. Algarin

Oscar Bermeo said...

Thank you for your story. Really inspiration, isn't it amazing how a simple act of author generosity can keep us inspired even sixteen years later.

I'm also envious that you got to hear both Holman and Algarín at a reading. That's the real power of the word right there.