October 30, 2012

Performing Voices of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, October 26

(left to right) Magdalena Gomez, Jesus Papoleto Melendez,
Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, Edwin Torres,
Margarita Benitez
This was a wonderful afternoon & evening of conversations & readings up at the University at Albany (NY). In the afternoon it was a panel discussion, "Conversations with Diasporican Writers," in the Assembly Hall of the Campus Center. It was supposed to be moderated by Tomás Urayoán Noel (who had been a featured poet at my Third Thursday Poetry Night back in December, 2009) , but unfortunately he was not there. Fortunately 'though, the panel was ably hosted by Margarita Benitez who presented the topic "crossing boundaries" for each panelist to respond to.

Often such panel discussions are deadly but this group was lively, full of energy & laughter & back & forth banter. Performance poet Edwin Torres began by saying he doesn't consider himself a Puerto Rican per se (born in the Bronx of Puerto Rican parents) but doesn't shy away from it. He read an excerpt from an essay on performance that discussed the artist as "other" that helps us understand the "we", about trying to figure out where the edges are. He said, "performance takes a wall & turns it into a stage."

Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes presented himself as a short story writer (who privately writes poetry), born in Puerto Rico, a professor, a drag-queen. He gave an hysterical account of preparing a bi-lingual edition of his stories written in Spanish then translating them into English & revising them at the same time, revising the Spanish until some times the 2 versions of the stories printed in the book don't match, which would wreak havoc with someone like me whose Spanish is rudimentary & when reading it I often resort to cribs (i.e., other's translations of what I'm reading).

Jesús Papoleto Meléndez was one of the founders of the Nuyorican Poetry Café. He read excerpts from the preface of just-published collected works, Hey Yo! Yo Soy! - 40 Years of Nuyorican Street Poetry (2leafpress.org) about making up stories as a young child, the influence of his black friends & the encouragement of tutors and teachers, paying tribute to these teachers. He read a poem about Mexican immigrants crossing the freeway outside San Diego, "Tourism Up Dow Jones Up 5 Points."

As lively as the discussion had been at this point, Magdelena Gómez kicked it up a few notches trading funny stories with Papoleto about her being a young poet on the fringes of the Nuyorican Café, not being featured there because she "couldn't be had."  Instead, her first reading was at gay men's revue where she got her first look at a real live penis as well. She too paid tribute to people who are the reason she is a poet today, the New York City poets Emily Glen & Barbara Holland (both of whom I had met during my days on the edges of the downtown poetry scene). When I indicated that I too had met Emily Glen, had been a couple times to readings in her apartment, Magdalena came out of her seat at the panel & gave me a huge hug! She went to the podium to read a poem with vivid, bright images imagining a grandmother because, she said, sometimes we must invent our memories.

Even the sometimes tedious questions from the audience ended up giving these lively writers more chances to laugh, to tell more stories of who influenced them, of fellow poets on the scene.

In the evening we gathered in the huge expanse of the Campus Center Ballroom for the "Diasporican Café: Performing Voices of the Puerto Rican Diaspora." In addition to the afternoon's panel participants the reading included Giannina Braschi who read excerpts in Spanish & English from her book United States of Banana (Amazon Crossing, 2011), a surreal political work of satiric poetic fiction (can't believe I got all those adjectives in there), post 9/11 consideration of stereotypes of Puerto Ricans & gays (I've got the book & it makes my head spin -- in a good way).

Magdalena Gómez was loud & defiant, after beginning with an enthusiastic "thank-you" performance, then into a long political rant, "invent this…" Then a poem about a bitter confrontation with her mother when she, Magdalena, worked in an AIDS ward.  She ended with the poem "Why I Became a Loud Puerto Rican" (so she could tell her story). Magdalena is also the Artistic Director of the Teatro Vida in Springfield, MA.

Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes read 2 pieces, one in Spanish, a long dedication, then a piece mostly in dialogue with a black thug that expanded into lyricism & a conversation with his mother, gay sex & love (almost). Fun, shocking & to the heart of the matter. His books include Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Disapora (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) & Uñas Pintadas de Azul = Blue Fingernails (Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 2009).

Jesús Papoleto Meléndez read a series of pieces as if he was at an open mic in NYC (or here), beginning with "Cop Haiku," then mixed blood & gold in "Overflow." His title piece from his book, "Hey Yo! Yo Soy!" a political piece incorporating Native chants followed, then a piece written as a youth "Spring Again," & ended with the poem he read at the panel.

Edwin Torres likes to play with sounds, with language(s) in his performances & began with a weaving pattern of phrases, even singing, in "The Name of Things." Another more philosophical/political poem piled up "--isms." A couple poems brought in his father, one about trying to fit in, the other a conversation at his father's grave. Another poem played in English, Spanish, Spanglish & maybe what could be called "Torrish" exploring the Pureto Rican identity. He ended with a his "Requisite Mango Poem" complete with rhythmic foot stomping & audience participation.

The program was sponsored by the Center for Latino, Latin American, and Caribbean Studies; the Department of Latin American, Caribbean, and US Latino Studies; and the College of Arts and Science at UAlbany; as well as the NYS Writers Institute. It was one of the best programs I'd seen up there in a long time.

You can find more photos from this marvelous event at my flickr site here.

1 comment:

Larry La Fountain said...

Dear Dan, thank you so much for this great piece on our reading at the Puerto Rican Studies Association conference! It was really an extraordinary event, and your essay and fantastic photos bring it all back to life!