The line was already halfway down the block when a few friends and I arrived at the Nuyorican by 9:00 on a chilly Friday night in November. As we stood outside for an hour, I could hear the questions as the wind blew. Would the slam be worth it? What was it going to be like? Would we ever even get in? Eventually, ten o’clock rolled around and we entered what is the birthplace of New York City slam poetry.
Although slam poetry started in Chicago and was founded by Marc Smith in 1986 at the Green Mill, New York City is where the media began to flock . The New York City slam scene got so much media attention that people started to claim the movement began at the Nuyorican and was founded by Bill Holman. Since the beginning, the Nuyorican and Bill Holman have been at the forefront of making poetry accessible to the masses; both helped to make the poetry slam a nation-wide phenomenon.
At first, the Nuyorican Poetry Café was a struggling mecca for poets on 3rd Street created by Miguel Piñero, Roland Legiardi-Laura, Miguel Algarín, and Pedro Pietri. After Piñero’s death, the Nuyorican seemed it would follow the same fate as one of its late co-founders. However at a memorial for Piñero, Algarín and Holman decided to reopen the Nuyorican Poets Café. In opening the café, both parties decided that the space needed to be revitalized and re-imagined. To get the café off the ground, Holman decided to host a poetry slam. This decision created an atmosphere that gave birth to poetry that was accessible to the masses — a kind of poetry that was relatable and grew in popularity with Hip-Hop.
But there I was, newly 18 with sore feet and cold hands, attending my first poetry slam at the birthplace of New York City’s portion of the movement. It was amazing. As soon as we walked in, it became clear that finding a seat would be near impossible. People were upstairs, sitting in chairs, sprawled on the floor, standing in every square foot left in the room all waiting to hear some poetry. It was beautiful to see, and to even think that the space had reached its maximum capacity just for poetry on a Friday night. The host’s voice welcomed us in as the music boomed in our ears. After the host greeted each person from all over the country and all over the world, he finally arrived at New York. For each borough of New York and for New Jersey, the host and DJ had prepared a song, accompanied by a small dance that the whole room knew and performed. Even if people had come in awkwardly and without a friend, the entire room quickly became a tightly-knit community, rooted in poetry. The vibe was welcoming and fun, and poetry had yet to be read!
The first featured poet was a tall African-American women who read everything from a poem about Twerking and Miley Cyrus to a poem about her height. On the surface it seemed to be just words, but to my surprise, I had chills on my skin. The poet’s performance abilities were awe-inspiring: she took the most simple and common words, and transformed them, as if she were magical, into thought-provoking, meaningful, and powerful waves of emotion. Every word sent a shiver down my spine, and lit a fire in my soul. As the next poet began, the sound of her son playing guitar mixed with her voice and her spoken words like a drink I could taste on my tongue — both sweet and savory.
That night was so much more than just poetry. The Nuyorican and its infamous poetry slam was a picturesque scene of poetry, music, and most importantly: community. It became glaringly obvious why the poetry slam had gained so much popularity. The poetry slam was a powerful experience and the words were not just written on a page. They became their own entity as the poet spit them into the room, and the crowd reacted. Although it could be seen as just a bunch of hipsters (if you don’t know, see the May 26 article) sitting in a room by a stage snapping their fingers. Instead the magic was in the details. Is it a bunch of hipsters sitting in a room by a stage snapping their fingers? More or less yes, but the magic is in the details…
The magic is in the details.
Aptowicz, Cristin O’Keefe. Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam. New York: Soft Skull, 2008. Print.
If you want to know more about slam poetry or the venue check out Button Poetry on youtube and the venue at http://www.nuyorican.org/.