By 10 PM on Friday, a crowd reached from the end of East 3rd Street towards what Allen Ginsberg deemed “the most integrated place on the planet.” The doors to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe were about to open for the end-of-the-week poetry slam; the line was boisterous with newcomers wondering what to expect, and writers rehearsing their performances. Everyone filtered into a brick-walled room with a high ceiling for echoes, and was treated to three hours of insight in verse. “This place is incredible,” says Manhattan poet Akua. “Everyone who reads is so different, and adds something new to the show.” This range of voices has made the cafe stand out from the start.
Even before it was a grit-and-glitz art scene, the Lower East Side was a popular immigrant spot. During the 1970s, however, the academic publishing community was not friendly towards Latino writers. As a result, many of them felt no more at home in New York than they did in Puerto Rico, and were pushed to form their own creative circle. The Nuyorican started in 1973 as a routine gathering in writer Miguel Algarin’s apartment, where many unveiled poetry, theatre and music reflecting the immigrant experience. It was, in the words of current executive director Daniel Gallant, “a café more in an intellectual than a formal sense.”
The Nuyorican found its current home in 1981, when La Mama, another arts organization, sold a near-century-old tenement. This era’s Lower East Side had more abandoned lots than artistic venues— but that did not stop the café’s development. After some volunteer work and government funding, The Nuyorican became and remains a chance for everyone to have a say. The original variety of mediums currently exists in modern art decorations (including a larger-than-life mural by the entrance), experimental stage productions (famously “Short Eyes” pre-Broadway, and routinely monologues) and frequent musical gatherings (ranging Latin jazz to Afro-Cuban nights). Events often blend different forms of entertainment, pushing spectators out of their comfort zones. This past Friday’s slam, for instance, took 5-minute breaks for some hip-hop swagger; at one point, Moderator Mahogany Browne welcomed bold audience members to dance on stage. Nevertheless, poetry is this café and nonprofit’s foundation. It was actually the first Manhattan venue to claim a slam.
When café former board member Bob Holman stopped through Chicago in 1989, he was blown away by a spoken-word show at Green Mill. “It was a very early form of slam poetry,” says Gallant, “but it had same basic elements that a slam has today.” In its current incarnation, attendees sit and gather around the Nuyorican’s one-step stage for a three-part performance. At Green Mill, judges were chosen before the event began, but the Nuyorican randomly selects them from the audience. Their gavels take the form of hand-scrawled rating cards, and each event is a step towards an annual final. If anything, this structure is a nod to spoken-word’s signature spontaneity. That immediacy is one thing helping the café stay afloat.
“The entertainment industry has been changing since the dawn of time,” says Gallant, “but poetry prospers. The beauty of spoken word is that it moves poetry out of the classroom, and makes it this raw, impulsive art form that reflects day-to-day experiences.” The Nuyorican sees modern social media, with its own day-to-day updates, as a golden promotion opportunity: It is an active Tweeter, and has a Facebook page almost as crowded as a good slam. Friday performer Marcel Davis may have rhymed on digital alienation, but he strongly approves of using the internet for large-scale communication. In this case, it helps the Nuyorican stay engaged with a younger, net-savvy, demographic— as does educational and community outreach.
This thriving venue kicks off every weekend with an explosion of verse: After a visiting “sacrificial poet” opens, selected slammers step up to the microphone and speak their minds to a room of rhyme-hungry listeners. Afterwards is an open mic for all, and it is hard to leave without some education of perspective: October’s last Friday saw a multitude of subjects, ranging from foreign affairs to gender roles. Each performer brought something new to the mix, but some topics were age-old: “If you date a poet,” laughed MC Browne, “break up amicably: We can and will write about your ass.”