Race relations in verse

It might be a little too convenient to introduce the visiting poet, Willie Perdomo, as Nuyorican — the 1970s term that identifies the complex experience of being both a New Yorker and a Puerto Rican. He brings an even more hybrid identity politics to this year’s Urban Voices International Poetry Festival.

Perdomo writes in a New York street vernacular that perceptively blends Spanish, English and ebonics. One of his most electrifying poems, Nigger-Rican Blues, represents his multiethnic creative focus. He sets out a humorous encounter with different racial personalities who raise questions about the reader’s racial identity. The encountered personalities hurl accusatory stereotypes based on the race they assume the reader to be. These, with a set of witty responses, comprise the poem.

Perdomo is a medium-built guy with a darkish complexion. Many people mistakenly assume that he is African-American, despite his Puerto Rican heritage. Some have even thought him to be of Arabic descent, but his father emigrated to the United States in his early 20s. Perdomo grew up in New York’s predominantly Spanish East Harlem.

He says travelling has exposed him to “people who have not heard of Puerto Ricans” and his identity has taken on a more “diasporic palette”. This revelation, he says, “informs his self-definition as a Caribbean writer from New York City who can easily pass for Manolo or Mohammad”.

About the controversial title of Nigger-Rican Blues, Perdomo says “it pissed off a few people” when it was first published. But he celebrates the fact that it led to a “constructive dialogue on usage and censorship”. He asks challengingly: “What is the value of art if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable to the point of discussion?”

The storm around the title is comparable with the one around the word Nuyorican. In the 1970s an earlier generation of poets — including Miguel Pinero and Algarin, founders of the Nuyorican Poets’ Café — enraged the middle classes in Puerto Rico with their use of the word.

But Perdomo doesn’t have any qualms about using the words nigger and Nuyorican and asks: “Who has the market on authenticity?” Thanks to the efforts of older scholars, though, there hasn’t been the “type of resistance that writers like Algarin and Pinero encountered”, he says.

Perdomo was once described by some in the United States literary press as the reincarnation of Langston Hughes. He celebrates that honour, but with a qualification. Although he says he “will not deny that Hughes was a major influence” on him, he’s quick to add that he “would have to live two lives to write as much as Langston Hughes did”. It’s useful to note that Perdomo “attempts to capture those voices from the streets” in his work in a similar way Hughes did in his.

South Africans can count on him to be just as accessible to them. He says the idea of finding relevance with audiences doesn’t worry him much. “I think people all over the world can relate to the primary themes of love, death, truth and beauty.” This ability to access universal themes has won him multiple awards and honours, including the 2007 Pushcart Prize nomination, the 2002 and 1996 New York Foundation for the Arts poetry and fiction fellowships and the 2004 PEN America Beyond Margins Award for Smoking Lovely.

Though he dropped out of college, Perdomo has held several teaching posts. He works at Friends Seminary and the Bronx Academy of Letters, where he is artist-in-residence, as well as at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. He has published four books — Smoking Lovely, Poems of New York, Where a Nickel Costs a Dime and a children’s title called Visiting Langston.

When I ask him how much danger working within the Bronx Academy poses for his street cred, Perdomo gets animated. “No matter how much I teach or publish, when it comes to the academy I’m always the kid from the street who didn’t go to school but still wanted to play tag with the kids who did go to school and I usually sneaked into the school during lunchtime.”

The Urban Voices International Poetry Festival is on at the Bassline, Newtown, Johannesburg, on July 25, the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town, on July 26 and the Bat Centre, Durban, on July 28

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Percy Mabandu
Percy Mabandu is an art historian and freelance writer based in The city of Tshwane.

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