In June of 2003, I had only just become comfortable parking my car on the street in New York City. Until that point, the City was a monolith of crime and fear and grand theft auto, so it made sense to put the car in a garage, often at great cost, because parking garages are a complete rip-off. I was (still am) a suburban Jersey boy, raised to have caution, and my brand of Jersey caution told me that the City was a zoo not to be trifled with. Time had straightened out this assumption, but there was still one daunting task left for the cautious Jersey boy to conquer: driving to the Bronx for poetry.
The Bronx, as I discovered, is a huge place, stretching from Harlem to Westchester. Parts of it are among the richest suburban neighborhoods in the nation. Other parts of it have 24-hour mobile police precincts. In this regard, the Bronx is not unlike where I come from. In Northern New Jersey, you can drive fifteen minutes in any direction and end up somewhere your parents would love to visit. You can drive another ten and end up somewhere your parents think they fled by living in Jersey. So it was that despite my lingering fear of a shattered car window, I found myself at peace sitting on 139th Street and 3rd Avenue in the Bronx, what was then the Blue Ox Bar, a place that may as well have been 21st Avenue in Paterson, New Jersey.
This was the place, and Acentos was the reading, where I fell in love with poetry again. I was writing a new poem every week. Every day. I didn't even keep half the poems I wrote there. I didn't care about the archive. I just knew that I was in a safe space, where I could be an unabashedly Spanglish-speaking Puerto Rican/Cuban young man with genuine insecurity, and that I could work it all out on the page. It helped, of course, that the reading's two founding poets (Oscar and Fish) had befriended me and were willing to feed my jones(es) for poetry and bochinche. I had friends and fellow poets sharing in the experience (Maria, Jessica, Eliel, Raj). But yes, most of all, I had the space, the physical space to sit and read, to speak on the open mic, and to do so among people who spoke both the languages I was attempting to express myself in.
This was not a particularly new concept, even though what we were doing was new shit for us. The early days of the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe (both on 6th Street and 3rd Street) gave us the template: Fearless writing, with the themes we grew up in, and the opportunity to grow into our own styles, the way we choose. This has been the story of my development as a writer. The space nurtured my voice...MY voice, my authentic experience, and to date I haven't felt a particular need to translate concepts, or apologize to anyone for writing in two languages. I want...we want...this space, Acentos, to do the same for other writers what it's done for myself and other writers of Latino descent.
How we gonna do that? Glad you asked, muffin.
Of course, the reading itself still happens every second and fourth Tuesday, in a venue five blocks south of our old one. The Bruckner Bar and Grill, despite its admittedly earthy name, is a haven for performers and poets who want the intimacy of the club with the urgency of the black box theater. We've been there for two years, and we're only now coming into our own with it. Last month, we had a collaborative duo share poetry AND sonic art; this month, we'll be having both a scholarly poet and a jazz ensemble doing their respective damn things in the name of Latino poetry. This reading nurtures voices and incubates talent. It should not be missed. There are links to follow on the right...so follow them.
As all movements can and should do at some point, this movement will be expanding outward. Our intention is to be for Latino poets what Cave Canem is for African-American poets: a home for Latinos and Latinas in poetry. We've been doing it for four years in the Bronx. We hope to do it for as long as we can in workshop with other writers of Latino/a descent. We will meet yearly, in fellowship with other writers and distinguished Latino faculty, for a weeklong retreat. The details and timing of this retreat will be worked out in time, but this is our mission: to nurture and develop writers of Latino/a descent, honor those already here, and advance writing by Latinos and Latinas in the United States.
To put it plainly. Our place in American letters is clear to us, but not always clear to the scholars. We will make it clear. Our peoples' experiences are often invisible. We will make them visible. Our presence in the publishing world (and other places) is often predicated on others' sense of "the Latino market." We will determine this presence for ourselves.
This, in a nutshell, is what we're working on over at Acentos. In another entry I'll talk a bit about both the retreat and our planned youth component. For now, I wanted to share my enthusiasm about this new phase we're entering, and how proud I am that it's coming from my home. We hope.
So I'm digging this new blog, folks! I think I'll be here more often. NICE!
Paz, pasteles, and everything else....