Poet RA Araya invited me to read at poet Miguel Algarin‘s birthday bash last month at Mama’s Bar in the East Village. It was such an honor to read for someone who has influenced so many lives.
Miguel has been a major force of influence in poetry, creating space and awareness for ethnic literature and community. He is a Shakespeare scholar and Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also co-founded the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the 1970s, which is one of those sacred New York City literary scenes.
Here’s a section of Algarin’s bio from his website:
Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Algarin moved with his family to New York City in the early 1950’s where his love for the written word intensified by the artistic energy radiating from the City streets. Obtaining advance degrees in literature from the University of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania State University, Algarin developed a successful career pursuing his passion for literature. He served as a Professor Emeritus for more than 30 years of service to Rutgers University where he taught Shakespeare, Creative Writing, and United States Ethnic Literature.
The life and work of Algarin spans the universities and the streets, so much so that combining the two resulted in the development of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a New York City cultural haven within the Lower East Side famed for being creatively drenched with great artistic intensity. Being the founder of such an organization, Algarin’s mission was to create a multi-cultural venue that both nurtures artists and exhibits a variety of artistic works to both enlighten and empower the underclass, it is a mission that has remained true to this day.
When I first moved back to northern New Jersey, after attending college in California, I became friends with a group of people that included many first- and second-generation Puerto Rican Americans and Colombian Americans. It was through one of them that I first heard about the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Nuyorican is an amalgamation of the words “Nueva York” (Spanish for “New York”) and “Puerto Rican,” and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe championed Spanish-language poets and spoken word. At the time, I had never been to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, but together my friends and I founded a coffeehouse in suburban New Jersey, where we invited bands, poets, and visual artists to perform. Most of the people involved were immigrants or children of immigrants–including myself. As the child of an immigrant father, I have always gravitated toward other immigrants and children of immigrants. That’s why even though I myself am not Nuyorican, I in many ways relate to the issues of identity and language raised through Nuyorican poetry.
That being the case, one of the highlights of Miguel Algarin’s birthday bash reading was hearing poet Joe Pacheco, whom I had just heard read “The Night Charlie Parker Played Tenor at Montmartre Cafe in Greenwich Village” at David Amram‘s show the week prior, read his poem about the pronunciation of his name and other immigrant people’s names. I couldn’t help but laugh when he included a Greek name! With great humor, Pacheco pointed out how people with ethnic names are often perceived by others (“but you speak English so well!”).
Produced by Araya, the reading also included:
- Brian Omni Dillon
- Rome Neal
- Charlie Vazquez
- Ray DeJesús
- Danny Shot
- Jeff Wright
- Puma Perl
- Kymberly Brown
- Carlos Manuel Rivera
- Lydia Cortes
- Noah Levin
- Edwin Torres
- Nancy Mercado
- David Henderson
- Lois Griffith
- Adam Ash
- Susan Yung
- Nancy Mercado
It was really great meeting Edwin Torres, who was huge on the poetry scene when I first came back to the East Coast but has since moved out of the city, making it rarer to get to see him perform. I enjoy his poetry so much, and he was really down to earth and easy to talk to.
Jeff Wright and I had connected through social media a while back, and it was fun to finally meeting him in person. He even gave me a copy of Live Mag, which I was really excited about because I had gotten a chance to skim it at John Reed‘s reading at the Guerilla Lit Reading series back in July and really wanted my own copy because it contains poetry by some of my favorite living poets.
Well, I could obviously go on and on about how great everyone was, but really the night was about Miguel Algarin. I had actually never heard him perform before, so it was awesome hearing him scat!
The last time I saw him, Miguel had told me about how he had known Jack Kerouac and was very interested in having me send a copy of Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the book I’m coauthoring with Paul Maher Jr., to him. The photo above, taken by Ra, is of me reading from the book for Miguel’s birthday.