Voices That Challenge Views

Nuyorican Poets’ Aesthetic Radicalisms
September 28, 2014

“Nuyorican is at its birth,” Miguel Algarín proudly and defiantly proclaimed in the introduction to his landmark 1975 anthology Nuyorican Poetry. Algarín’s introduction would become a poetic manifesto for a new generation of Puerto Rican artists growing up in the urban ghettos of New York. By affirming themselves as Nuyoricans, and celebrating their own inventive language—a speech rooted in the streets, raw, dynamic, resounding with English and Spanish, sometimes simultaneously—Algarín and his fellow poets challenged both the racist Anglo views that decried Puerto Ricans’ purported cultural poverty, and the Puerto Rican island elites’ prejudiced and disdainful stance towards them.

But until now, very little attention had been paid to the continuities and disjunctions between two key, if distinct periods of Nuyorican poetry: its origins in the 1960s as an expression of a new social identity, and its reawakening as the crucible of the 1990s spoken-word scene. Urayoán Noel’s impressive book, In Visible Movement, provides a much-needed historical and critical assessment of Nuyorican poetry, in its many permutations, from the 1960s to the present. A Nuyorican poetic archive of remarkable historical breadth, In Visible Movement not only provides insightful and original readings of well-known poets such as Pedro Pietri, Tato Laviera, and Willie Perdomo, but also examines the works of unduly neglected figures like Lorraine Sutton. Yet rather than focusing exclusively on printed texts, Noel adeptly deploys theories of performance and diaspora to trace the crossings and circulations of gestures, voices, performances, and bodies.

In its inception, Nuyorican poetry was part of the broader countercultural and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The progressive and revolutionary brands of activism of the era deeply shaped politically minded and community-engaged Puerto Rican writers who would find a home in the Nuyorican Poets Café. Algarín’s Nuyorican Poetry cemented Nuyoricanness as both a social identity and a mode of creative expression by codifying the bilingualism of the streets.

Almost 30 years later, Algarín, with co-editor Bob Holman, published the celebrated anthology Aloud (1994), which firmly positioned the Nuyorican Poets Café at the helm of the spoken word and slam movement of the 1990s. Unlike Nuyorican poetry of the 1960s and 1970s, which was written and performed in a climate of mass protests and acts of civil disobedience, the slam competitions of the 1990s were part of a mass media circuit, performances staged not only for the community, but also for marketable national tours and TV shows, becoming commodified celebrations of multicultural expression.

Algarín’s two anthologies can be understood as contrasting poles of Nuyorican poetic expression, which elicit a number of questions explored in Noel’s In Visible Movement. If, in 1975, Nuyorican poetry was in its infancy, had it achieved maturity by the mid-1990s? Can we place the two anthologies along a continuum of the same poetic phenomenon? Or is there even such a thing as a Nuyorican poetic tradition? And if so, what are its characteristics?

 As the title hints, In Visible Movement contends that one of the defining characteristics of Nuyorican poetry is its problematization of the terms of social in/visibility of Puerto Ricans. Noel convincingly argues that in response to their constant depiction as a pathologized urban underclass, Nuyorican poets have developed poetic strategies that confront their “institutional invisibility and abject hypervisibility.” Noel’s book underscores how Nuyorican poetry is not only an expressive act, but also a deeply critical and self-reflexive one, and thus reclaims the barrio and its street poetics as a significant political, aesthetic, and theoretical site.

Divided into four chronologically sequenced chapters, the book’s structure gives the reader a clear sense of the changing demographic, political, and cultural landscapes out of which Nuyorican poetry emerged. The first chapter focuses on foundational poets like Pedro Pietri and Victor Hernández Cruz during the countercultural period of the 1960s and early 1970s. Noel argues that these poets, rather than just supporting the programmatic modes of resistance typically associated with Puerto Rican cultural nationalism and political militancy, embraced daring and experimental poetic strategies “that sought to make visible a heretofore unseen history, but in the process ... challenged what and how we see.”

Alongside the “counterpolitics” associated with Puerto Rican independence movements, Noel describes Nuyorican poets’ “encounterpolitics”: strategies that seek to unite a “number of disparate and seemingly incommensurable personae, forms, voices and discourses in self-reflexive performances that underscore the interdependence of identities.” Noel’s second chapter examines the institutionalization of Nuyorican letters following the founding of the Café in the mid-1970s. Noel’s readings of Algarín and Miguel Piñero’s “outlaw” poetics against those of socially engaged poets like Luis Reyes Rivera and Lorraine Sutton underscore the tensions between the need for lasting community-centered institutions and the articulation of artistically autonomous “survivalist street poetics.”

The third chapter tackles the ambivalent responses of Nuyorican poets to their inclusion in the growing Latino literary canon. As Noel explains, “the most memorable books of 1980s Nuyorican poetry perform the difficulty of incorporation” into both the mainland’s pan-ethnic imaginaries and the island’s national corpus. In the 1980s, Noel shows, poets like Hernández Cruz and Tato Laviera further the rupture of linguistic conventions and create untranslatable texts that resist assimilation. This is also a key moment in which new voices are heard, especially women, queers, and those located beyond the symbolic environs of New York City.

The book’s final chapter stages a reading at the intersection of Arlene Dávila’s “neoliberal city” and Juan Flores’ “diaspora city,” during the height of slam’s national popularity in the 1990s. At this time, Nuyorican poets had to negotiate with the commodification of deracinated forms of minority poetry in tandem with the rapid gentrification of the local barrio. Noel explores how poets such as Mariposa (María Teresa Fernández) and Edwin Torres position themselves within and against a market that seeks to neutralize Nuyoricans’ contestatory power.

Noel’s In Visible Movement goes beyond the dominant approaches that have characterized studies of Nuyorican poetry until now. Complementing culturalist or sociological views, which often read Nuyorican poetry primarily as testimonial or documentary texts, Noel examines Nuyorican poetry’s daring and creative pushing of aesthetic boundaries. His keen eye—Noel is not only a critic, but also a poet himself—reveals Nuyorican poets’ formal and stylistic innovations. His focus on performance and corporality furthers existing textual readings, which, as he points out, emphasize issues of linguistic representation and bilingualism while ignoring what goes on “off the page.” In this sense, Noel joins the ranks of scholars such as Frances Negrón-Muntaner and Lázaro Lima, who have also focused on the Latino body as a source of critical knowledge.

Noel also engages in a dialogue on diasporic practices with Stuart Hall, Brent Edwards, and Juan Flores, which produces an original theoretical vocabulary. From “encounterpolitics” and “translanguage” to the “out of” and “diasporous” aesthetics, Noel’s thought-provoking coinages will help scholars explicate the relationships between art and communities, politics and transnational cultural expressions. In the process, Noel recovers some wonderfully surprising material beyond the printed texts, discussing little-known documentary films, photos, LPs and audio recordings, as well as video performances.

 Not only do these varied sources open up new lines of inquiry, but they also make possible two important critical moves. First, rather than seeing Nuyorican poetry as a singular and uniform movement, Noel carefully demonstrates its heterogeneity, the multiplicity of poetic and political inclinations gathered under the Nuyorican rubric. Second, the eclectic primary materials allow Noel to situate Nuyorican poetry within “the breath-based vernaculars in postwar U.S. poetry” by documenting the collaborations, references and mutual influences of Beat, Umbra, Black Arts, and Chicano poets. From Frank Lima’s associations with Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch to Piñero’s and Algarín’s recitations at the Naropa Institute at an event hosted by Allen Ginsberg, Noel refuses to see Nuyorican poetry as a self-contained and isolated phenomenon, and underscores Nuyorican poets’ contributions to American poetry.

Nuyorican poetry, of course, cannot be interpreted solely within U.S. poetics. Indeed, whether reading Piñero through the Burroughsesque trope of colonial “interzone” or documenting Nuyoricans’ “difficulty of incorporation” into the Latino canon, Noel’s book is aware that the abiding colonial predicament of the island is a constitutive and distinctive feature of the Puerto Rican experience. Noel’s diasporic approach foregrounds the transnationality that structures Nuyorican poetics, presenting a challenge to nationally-bounded identities. It also underscores the overwhelming influence that African-derived expressive cultures—from griot traditions to musical syncopation, on the island and within the New York-based diaspora—have had on Nuyorican poetry. However, given this emphasis, many readers will want to know more about the reasons for and significance of this preponderance of black-identified voices.

Urayoán Noel’s In Visible Movement is a remarkable scholarly work that will provoke new path-defining inquiries. With its sophisticated theoretical armature, this well-researched book plots Nuyorican poetry’s relation to U.S. literary history and Puerto Rican diasporic culture, and provides stimulating and essential readings of a highly compelling literary corpus.

Cristina Pérez Jiménez is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures and the Institute of Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Her research interests include Hispanic Caribbean cultural production, Critical Race Theory and Latino Studies. She is writing a dissertation about the cultural politics and political culture of Puerto Ricans in New York, and the emergence of a New York Latino identity during the 1930s and 1940s.

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