Rio’s Street Poets Have Something to Say

The artists who sell their poems on the streets of Rio de Janeiro see the occupation of public space as a necessary effort to expand self-expression and access to art.

April 10, 2024

Nelson Neto selling poems. Banco do Brasil Cultural Center, Rio de Janeiro, March 2024. (Hannah McKenzie)

“Do you like poetry?” Depending on the day, if you stand outside the Banco do Brasil Cultural Center or the National Library in Rio de Janeiro’s city center, you may hear this question hundreds of times. Most people don’t stop to respond. Perhaps they have not even heard, lost in the rush. It is worth stopping to listen.

The people who ask this question day in and day out are the poetas da rua or street poets of Rio, who walk the streets selling independently printed, palm-sized books of their poetry for a flexible price. On the cover and within the pages, the poets include their own visual art, usually drawings or prints of collages. Many of these poets make a living solely off their poems; some have been at it for decades. The poets see their work as something beyond themselves and their self-expression—something bigger, a sort of essential pushback to the dynamics of power and artistic practice that shape the immense and complicated city of Rio de Janeiro.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Marquinho Torre, Nelson Neto, and Shaina Marina, three of Rio’s street poets, to learn more about the political dynamics that surround their work as public artists.

A Free Speech platform

Nelson, who entered the street poetry scene 20 years ago, says he found the zine medium through involvement in Rio’s punk music scene and Black liberation movement. The street poets’ writing is often political, always personal. Among endless other topics, their poems deal with racism, misogyny, police brutality, and daily life in the city’s peripheries, both its challenges and ordinary joys. Shaina is a founding member of the collective “Nós, as Poetas!” (We, the Poets!), a group composed of 23 women street poets across Brazil. The group recently published a poetry collection focused on experiences of gender-based violence. “I wanted to talk about what bothers me in society, the things that turn me inside out,” Shaina told me. “It’s about revolutionizing people’s mentality through art.”

Shaina Marina’s latest poems, March 2024. (Hannah McKenzie)

Marquinho recites a poem for me to illustrate the kind of themes he deals with in his work. Throughout our conversation, he rarely breaks eye contact. He pauses briefly to make sure I know the word camburão, meaning police van.

They manipulate my opinion
Crucify me in a police van
They call me a thief
Steal my dignity
Stab me with a knife
Turn my pen into handcuffs of solitude
Vaccinate my brothers
They steal my thoughtfulness
Throw me in the desert to preach to cacti and aimless winds
Look what a transformation: from hero, I’m considered an imbecile
Hypnotize me
Teleport me to a world without crisis
Where my heart redeems
And frees itself from sadness

From abstraction to concrete political manifesto, street poems serve as a sort of platform for grassroots, raw, uncensored political discourse. Very often, the street poets write about their love of the street. The artists speak proudly about the freedoms allowed by the independent nature of their work, in contrast to working in formal art roles or with publishers.

Shaina, who has been writing and selling her work for eight years, says that on a typical day working outside a popular spot in downtown Rio, she typically sells 30 or 40 poetry booklets. All three poets spoke of travel. Marquinho took recent trips to Minas Gerais and Paraíba, financed fully by his poems. “I’m known as the guy who lives exclusively from poetry,” he brags. Nelson told me about a trip from Rio to Porto Alegre, stopping to sell in more than 50 small towns across approximately 1,000 miles. When we met, Shaina had just returned from a weeklong trip to São Paulo, where she’d sold 309 poetry booklets.

Along with being able to choose their work hours, locations, and production timelines, above all, the artists speak about the freedom they find in the writing itself. “I can talk about whatever I want to,” Nelson explains. “There won't be any marketing department that will say ‘don't talk about it because it doesn't sell.’” Similarly, Shaina tells me she can’t imagine letting someone tell her how she should express her voice, or how she should format or bind her poetry books. “I like to be totally free in the way I express myself,” she says.

Shaina’s tattoo. Lapa, Rio de Janeiro, March 2024. (Hannah McKenzie)

A Love for the Street

Outside the writing itself, Rio’s street poets take on a political role by the very nature of the physical space they occupy. For these artists, the street stands in sharp contrast to more “mainstream” artistic and literary spaces in Rio, which they say are often accompanied by elitism and exclusion. Marquinho mentions the South Zone of Rio in particular, naming discrimination perpetrated by a majority white, Portuguese, or otherwise European-descendent people: “They create a wall so that I don't enter… It comes from imperialism,” he says. He notes the challenges that Black and peripheral artists face in accessing financial resources that are available in Rio to support the arts, and connects this exclusion to one from his childhood, when he recalls being pointedly excluded from art classes. In public art, by contrast, Marquinho named himself a poet: “Nobody said this to me: you are a poet. I hit my chest and said, ‘Bro, I’m a poet.’”

Writing without searching for outside publication or validation, these street poets define their own worth and work. Nelson disagrees with the idea that one must be famous to call themselves an artist. The street poets in Rio work to construct an inclusive space for artistic expression, one without walls, without tricky doors to unlock; the urban environment. Toward this aim, the street poets make deliberate efforts to expand the streets they occupy beyond the city center, also frequenting more peripheral parts of the city or ordinary public transit routes.

Nelson tells me that poetry events often feel very formal and “closed.” In response to feeling unwelcome or uncomfortable in mainstream poetry settings, the street poets have built something else in their saraus (evening parties) held in the open air of Rio. “We abolish the microphone,” Nelson explains. He had seen at other poetry events that the microphone intimidates some artists, preventing some from sharing their work publicly. “We thought, let's do ours in a way that people feel free,” he said, adding that after they began doing no-mic events, several poets told him it was the first time they felt the courage to recite.

Nelson arranging his poetry books to sell. Centro, Rio de Janeiro, March 2024. (Hannah McKenzie)

“We are always occupying some square, some corner, some place where we can hang around,” says Nelson. He explains that many people have a non-collective vision of the street, viewing it as a place belonging to others, to commerce, or to the State. “People pass through without understanding that we are all part of the street,” Nelson tells me. “If you stand on a corner for half an hour, you realize that everything has changed. You will see that the place is alive, it has a whole dynamic. And the occupation of public space with art is essential for critical thinking and expression.”

He connects this collective use of the street to the hip-hop movement some years ago. People took to the streets with political ideas, he explains: “They saw, the street is mine. The street is ours.” Sometimes people spend hours on a bus to come to Rio’s city center to produce or access art, he explains. “People feel nothing is happening [in the peripheries] because there are no cultural institutions. But the street is perfect for that,” Nelson says, suggesting that street art offers an escape from the capitalist constraints that are normally associated with art.

“Think of a young guy who takes two buses to get here to the city center, who has to leave before midnight because the buses will stop running,” says Nelson. “For him to be able to have fun close to home with quality work, the same quality he has here in the center and in the South Zone, this is extremely political. And it can create new perspectives for that young person of what his life could be like.”

Street poets at the “Sarau de Outono.” Praça de Pira Olímpica, Centro, Rio de Janeiro, April 2024. (Hannah McKenzie)

The Role of the Street Poet

“I’ve always done social work, but I didn't know I was doing social work, you know?” Marquinho says to me, reflecting on the role of the public artist. “I took young people from my community and made them write, draw, do graffiti. Where I live, they said that graffiti was a crime, so I thought I was a criminal. And then I discovered that I did social work, you know?” Marquinho goes on to say that three of these young people were killed by a local militia, prompting him to dedicate his poetry to the youth in his community who have lost their lives.

Nelson conceptualizes the work of the street poet differently. He says that the “welfare-oriented view” of social work doesn’t resonate with him, and that his work is more “anarchist,” based on the assumption that his capacity is the same as anyone else’s. He fell into this role as a street poet by a twist of fate. “I don't see the poet as an enlightened, superior being,” he explains. “Poetry for me is as important as the bricklayer who builds your house, as the salesman, as the plumber. For me, the needs are the same.” That said, there is something special about his work, something he tries to share with others: “There is an autonomy that poetry can give you. I don't mean just poetry, but street art itself. You have your financial autonomy, your autonomy of expression.”

The street is not an easy place to work. Some artists mention selling on the street as a site where Rio’s racist dynamics play out most clearly. Beyond that, unsurprisingly, there is a softer, consistent rejection. Standing with Nelson, I watch as dozens of people pass, negating the question “Você gosta de poesia?” Oftentimes, they don’t respond at all. Nelson says he sometimes sells outside of public universities, and that he has more luck selling outside the math and physics buildings than outside of literature wings. The poets take the rejection in stride, generously waiting for a moment of patience.

I stand with Nelson as he works the side entrance of a museum downtown. He has a gentle energy and a tote bag full of poems. I ask him about the people who say no. He tells me about one man who, when asked if he liked poetry, said “I don’t even like lasagna.” “Look how poetic that is! That guy, he has a conscience, he is aware of the beauty of poetry,” says Nelson. Though he considers his poetry political, he does not see it as resistance: “Because art is natural, like breathing, like eating. It’s in the essence of being human,” Nelson explains. “A baby learns to dance first and then he will walk. He claps before writing, he sings before speaking.”

Do you like poetry? It’s hard not to, Nelson tells me. 

If you'd like to support the street poets in their upcoming travel to a literature conference in Ouro Preto, donate here.

Hannah McKenzie is a freelance journalist with a background in anthropology, reporting on culture and human rights from Rio de Janeiro.

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