Tuesday, March 24, 2015

We were tired, we were merry: Lower East Side Spring is Here Poetry Romp!

In January we scheduled a poetry romp through the community gardens.  As the invite declared:

Meet 2pm at Siempre Verde Garden, corner of Stanton & Attorney Streets. 

Public Space Party as we celebrate the Poetry of Pedro Pietri, the Nuyorican poet, playwright, founder of the Nuyorican Movement. We'll romp around the Lower East Side Community Gardens, starting atSiempre Verde Garden, meandering to Green Oasis, Petit Versailles, and then ending at the community garden, El Jardin del Paraiso NYC. Pedro's birthday is that day, March 21. Bring one of Pedro's poems or your own, a love story, a moment lost and found. We welcome all poems and stories. 

As we got closer to the day, the world and winter stopped cooperating.  Snow was everywhere the day before.  We walked through Brooklyn welcoming everyone to the first day of Spring.

welcome spring we toasted. 

Preparing for the event, I was a flutter with butterflies and worries, the blues grabbing and yanking at my soul.  Was this worth it?  

The first poem I would read from the day, took shape from late nights second thoughts.

Winters Poem Hoping for Spring in this vanishing New York

Sometimes it snows a lot, even when you want sunshine.
Snow on the first day of spring
Its too much.  But what is it telling me?
The noonday demon grasps me.
Pulling me down, down, down.

In letters to a young poet Rilke suggests that we look at our sadness, we learn from it.  
You've got to talk to the blues as Leadbelly advised.

Blues what are you telling me?

What is happening?

Where is my community?

Its always appearing and disappearing in front of my eyes elusive like a mesa in the distance, close enough to sometimes touch, but solid melting into air.

Movements arise – the battle of Seattle, acting up, dancing at Charas, hanging at a fire at Esperanza community garden, occupying Zuccotti, riding bikes with times up, then they disappear.

Now the tale of two cities plans to rob us of 17 more gardens to make way for displacing luxury condos

My city is disappearing

We need our public places, our gardens our places to share our poems.

So I wake up in the night, look at my computer and find a note.

Good day. We haven't met before.

Your article in Harm Reduction Journal from 2013 referencing Nelly Velasco mentions discussion inside the harm reduction community about her death by overdose. Nelly and I were very close. She was traveling to see me in NYC on the day after she died. This was some time ago.

This was a deeply traumatic event in my life. And I have carried pain, with no place to process it or "community" in which to discuss the many different issues involved. This is my own life, of course. But the mention of discussion in the harm reduction groups, both methodologically or in regard to the "stigma" of addition, prostitution and youth hustling, is something I did not know occurred.

I followed some of the links in your article. And I am trembling at the read. Thank you very much for making these available.

Looking at this letter from a stranger, I started to type

These stories stay with me every day. they linger in the air, in my mind, for years and years. you never know where it will begin or end or come again. i am so glad to hear from you. i never knew nelly. but her story strikes such a chord in my mind... so many lingering bits and pieces of a life that slipped away. thanks so much for reaching out. i'd love to hear more about nelly if you have a change. hope you are ok now. how did you know her? How do any of us ever remember?

What of the lost friends, how do the kids remember lost parents?
How do we find ourselves as they come and go and we make our way?
How do we beat off the sadness of what was, of those feelings that linger, of the noonday demon that grasps at us?

Let us sing the body electric
And reject the blue demon.
Let us dance and fly, and sing and share.
In these rooms,
The women they sing to and from, talking of Michelangelo
Lets share that poem of our lives.


Let us go there you and i.

This would be the poem of the day. But the day was cooperating so we rode to the garden. 

The theme for our day would be Pedro Pietri and the Nuyorican poetry movement of the Lower East Side.  In the summer of 1969, Pedro Pietri (1973/2004) stood up at one of the first Young Lords rallies and read from “Puerto Rican Obituary,” a poem about the complex relationship between New York and Puerto Rican identity. Today, the Nuyorican poetry remains a testament to a tragicomic panorama. Some have suggested that Pietri’s poem helped launch this movement. Like the beats and prose poets before her. It started a movement.
Here lies Juan
Here lies Miguel
Here lies Milagros
Here lies Olga
Here lies Manuel
who died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
Always broke
Always owing
Never knowing
that they are beautiful people
Never knowing
the geography of their complexion
If only they had turned off the television
and tune into their own imaginations (Pietri 1973/2004)

Like Situationists and Surrealists before them, Pietri’s poetry was an homage to the liberatory possibilities of the radical imagination.  Countless activists, including those in the Harm Reduction Movement, would take inspiration from this.  A favorite poem at the Love Exchange, a Friday night poetry jam of the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center of the early 1990, was by Miguel Pinero, one of the founders of the Nuyorican Poetry Movement. His poem, “The Book of Genesis According to St. Miguelito,” offers a small glimpse of the tragicomic paradoxical play that accompanied those evenings and the harm reduction movement in general.  I read that outside Siempre Verde garden.

The Book of Genesis According to St. Miguelito

Before the beginning
God created God
In the beginning
God created the ghettos & slums
and God saw this was good.
So God said,
"Let there be more ghettos & slums"
and there were more ghettos & slums.
But God saw this was plain
to decorate it
God created leadbase paint and then
God commanded the rivers of garbage & filth
to flow gracefully through the ghettos.
On the third day
because on the second day God was out of town
On the third day
God's nose was running
& his jones was coming down and God
in his all knowing wisdom
knew he was sick
he needed a fix
so God
created the backyards of the ghettos
& the alleys of the slums
in heroin & cocaine
with his divine wisdom & grace
God created hepatitis
who begat lockjaw
who begat malaria
who begat degradation
who begat
and God knew this was good
in fact God knew things couldn't git better
but he decided to try anyway
On the fourth day
God was riding around Harlem in a gypsy cab
when he created the people
and he created these beings in ethnic proportion
but he saw the people lonely & hungry
and from his eminent rectum
he created a companion for these people
and he called this companion
who begat racism
who begat exploitation
who begat male chauvinism
who begat machismo
who begat imperialism
who begat colonialism
who begat wall street
who begat foreign wars
and God knew
and God saw
and God felt this was extra good
and God said
On the fifth day
the people kneeled
the people prayed
the people begged
and this manifested itself in a petition
a letter to the editor
to know why? WHY? WHY? qué pasa babyyyyy?????
and God said,
"My fellow subjects
let me make one thing perfectly clear
by saying this about that:
NO . . .. . .. . ..COMMENT!"
but on the sixth day God spoke to the people
he said . . . "PEOPLE!!!
the ghettos & the slums
& all the other great things I've created
will have dominion over thee
and then
he commanded the ghettos & slums
and all the other great things he created
to multiply
and they multiplied
On the seventh day God was tired
so he called in sick
collected his overtime pay
a paid vacation included
But before God got on that t. w. a.
for the sunny beaches of Puerto Rico
He noticed his main man Satan
planting the learning trees of consciousness
around his ghetto edens
so God called a news conference
on a state of the heavens address
on a coast to coast national t. v. hook up
and God told the people
to be
and the people were cool
and the people kept cool
and the people are cool
and the people stay cool
and God said
Vaya . .…

Standing there in the sun,  outside a garden many of us helped recover from the rubble two years,, I read each of these poems.
We put up our sign, “Gardens Are the Future of Cities.”    For us, Siempre Verde is the perfect example of what a city can support and the way a city can transform itself into something sustainable. 

Several of the people on hand reflected on the sign.

“Without access to the earth, we become less human” noted Alissa of Stanton Street Shoal.  “We have to live in this space, like a majority of the people in the world do.  A majority of people in the world live in cities.  We have to make them livable.”  Gardens help us do this

“When we are not connected, we forget where we come from.  Gardens help us remember,” noted Chris.

JC read several of his own poems, as well as a Tata, by Pedro Pieti.  He reflected on Pedro’s work.  “But the dream does not die,” he gushed. “The dream does not die.”

Wendy read Philip Kevin Paul’s poem
Wyoming, Too Much for Me 

Love the distant mountain. 
Love its shadows. 
Love its gleaming ice cap,
it's low-down gleaming. 
You'd start walking toward it,
if you didn't know better.
You'd start walking. 

And Barbara read:

By Edna St. Vincent Millay 

We were very tired, we were very merry--- 
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry. 
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable--- 
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table, 
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon; 
And the whistles kept blowing and the dawn came soon. 

We were very tired, we were very merry--- 
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry; 
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear, 
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere; 
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold, 
The sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold. 

We were very tired, we were very merry--- 
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry. 
We hailed, "Good morrow, mother!" to a shawl-covered head, 
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read; 
And she wept, "God bless you!" for the apples and pears, 
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares. 

I  read another one by Miguel Pinero.

A Lower Eastside Poem
Just once before I die
I want to climb up on a
tenement sky
to dream my lungs out till
I cry
then scatter my ashes thru
the Lower East Side.

So let me sing my song tonight
let me feel out of sight
and let all eyes be dry
when they scatter my ashes thru
the Lower East Side.

From Houston to 14th Street
from Second Avenue to the mighty D
here the hustlers & suckers meet
the ****s & freaks will all get
on the ashes that have been scattered
thru the Lower East Side.

There's no other place for me to be
there's no other place that I can see
there's no other town around that
brings you up or keeps you down
no food little heat sweeps by
fancy cars & pimps' bars & juke saloons
& greasy spoons make my spirits fly
with my ashes scattered thru the
Lower East Side . . .

A thief, a junkie I've been
committed every known sin
Jews and Gentiles . . . Bums & Men
of style . . . run away child
police shooting wild . . .
mother's futile wails . . . pushers
making sales . . . dope wheelers
& cocaine dealers . . . smoking pot
streets are hot & feed off those who bleed to death . . .

all that's true
all that's true
all that is true
but this ain't no lie
when I ask that my ashes be scattered thru
the Lower East Side.

So here I am, look at me
I stand proud as you can see
pleased to be from the Lower East
a street fighting man
a problem of this land
I am the Philosopher of the Criminal Mind
a dweller of prison time
a cancer of Rockefeller's ghettocide
this concrete tomb is my home
to belong to survive you gotta be strong
you can't be shy less without request
someone will scatter your ashes thru
the Lower East Side.

I don't wanna be buried in Puerto Rico
I don't wanna rest in Long Island Cemetery
I wanna be near the stabbing shooting
gambling fighting & unnatural dying
& new birth crying
so please when I die . . .
don't take me far away
keep me near by
take my ashes and scatter them thru out
the Lower East Side . . .

“Ive got a garden poem,” noted JC who read a story about a garden sponsored by Target in el barrio.  

Finishing this, it was getting closer to three.  So we rode over to Green Oasis garden on East 8th Street between C and D. Riding over we talked about the ways cities need open spaces for such poems, which conversely open up the gardens and by extension cities.   The flowers from Green Oasis were just poking out of the ground.  A volunteer from Green Oasis welcomed us  with a poem.


Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley 

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

These spaces humble us, reminding of our limits, of the limits of time.

Sitting in the garden gazebo, surrounded by books and friends, I pulled out a Kenneth Rexroth’s book of poems, showing everyone the inscription from my father during an August 8th, 1998 trip up the California Coast, past Big Sur, up our way up to “Holy San Francisco” where I was scheduled to read at City Lights bookstore. “May there be many more,” wrote Dad, who passed from this world a year ago this week. 

photos by public space party 

We talked about Rexroth, his anarchy, poetry, and the ways poets such as this, such as William Butler Yeats, ignite movements with their words.

Judy read.

billy collins another reason i don't keep a gun in the house
The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius. 

 JC followed with a poetry jam classic, Pedro Pietri “Telephone Booth #905.5”
And then a self confessional on “The Overwhelming Void Approaching 50.”

Ziggy read the Russian Poet Medvedev
Attack on City Hall, an homage to Russians planning an anti fascist march.

Chris read to us from “Shout Out” by Sekou Sundiata, recalling the ways the youth he works with echoed and riffed on these words. 

Here’s to the best words
In the right place
At the perfect time to the human mind
Blown-up and refined.
To long conversations and the
Philosophical ramifications of a beautiful day.
To the twelve-steppers
At the thirteenth step
May they never forget
The first step.
To the increase, to the decrease
To the do, to the do
To the did to the did
To the do to the did
To the done done
To the lonely.
To the brokenhearted.
To the new, blue haiku.
Here’s to all or nothing at all.
Here’s to the sick, and the shut-in.
Here’s to the was you been to the is you in
To what’s deep and deep to what’s down and down
To the lost, and the blind, and the almost found.
To the crazy
The lazy
The bored
The ignored
The beginners
The sinners
The losers
The winners.
To the smooth
And the cool
And even to the fools.
Here’s to your ex-best-friend.
To the rule-benders and the repeat offenders.
To the lovers and the troublers
The engaging
The enraging
To the healers and the feelers
And the fixers and the tricksters
To a star falling from a dream.
To a dream, when you know what it means.
To the bottom
To the root
To the base, uh, boom!
To the drum
Here’s to the was you been to the is you in
To what’s deep and deep to what’s down and down
To the lost, and the blind, and the almost found.
Here’s to somebody within the sound of your voice this morning.
Here’s to somebody who can’t be within the sound of your voice tonight.
To a low-cholesterol pig sandwich smothered in swine without the pork.
To a light buzz in your head
And a soundtrack in your mind
Going on and on and on and on and on like a good time.
Here’s to promises that break by themselves
Here’s to the breaks with great promise.
To people who don’t wait in the car when you tell them to wait in the car.
Here’s to what you forgot and who you forgot.
Here’s to the unforgettable.
Here’s to the was you been to the is you in
To what’s deep and deep to what’s down and down
To the lost, and the blind, and the almost found.
Here’s to the hip-hoppers
The don’t stoppers
Heads nodding in the digital glow
Of their beloved studios.
To the incredible indelible impressions made by the gaze as you gaze in the faces of strangers.
To yourself you ask: Could this be God? Straight up!
Or is it a mask?
Here’s to the tribe of the hyper-cyber
Trippin’ at the virtual-most outpost at the edge on the tip
Believin’ that what they hear is the mothership
Drawing near.
Here’s to the was you been, to the is you in
To what’s deep and deep, to what’s down and down
To the lost, and the blind, and the almost found.

The rhythms feel like the street, I explained, like hip hop.

Moving from Poetry to Prose, another participant read from Professor Seagull, an homage to lost New York by Joseph Mitchell.  The Abstract from the New Yorker explains:

ABSTRACT: Profile of Joseph Ferdinand Gould, Harvard graduate, hobo panhandler and writer of “An Oral History of Our Time.” Gould is a Yankee. His branch of the Goulds has been in New England since 1635, and he is related to the Lowell, Lawrence Storer, and Vroom families. “There's nothing accidental about me,” he once said. I'll tell you what it took to make me what I am today. It took old Yankee blood, an overwhelming aversion to possessions, four years of Harvard and 25 years of beating the living hell out of my insides with bad hooch and bad food. I'm out of joint with the rest of the human race because I don't want to own anything.”

There are so many characters in the streets of New York, but many fade from the streets, a vanishing city of the imagination. 

Here's one about suffering, JC offered, reading an homage to a friend and his pills and self medications.  

photos by public space party 

We finished with Song of Myself (1892 version)
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

Finishing reading the poem, I recalled walking through the fields of Spain, where we read Walt Whitman.   Walking thoughts meander to questions about our remains and our life.  Just as I think of dad now as I look at the trees stretching in the distance, Wihtman reminds us:

“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love
If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.”

Gardens have a way of reminding us of such things, such impermanence.

So we walked through the neighborhood, talked with other friends in the street and the garden, warmed up, and enjoyed the Spring, the sunshine pouring on our faces.  The streets are for sharing, we know this in public space party.  So we stayed for a while and shared memories and stories.  Chris introduced us to friends.  We drank a beer and reflected on the poems of the day.
Riding home, the words pulsed through my head, the prose seeping from my mind into the street and back, the colors on the graffiti making their way from the sidewalk to the sky, back to my memory.

photos by public space party 

I stopped by Le Petit Versailles where we read poems the last year.  Our path hadn’t taken the crew here this time.  But next time they will.  There will be more and more poems in the coming days, just as there have been, as we have been, in a simple moment in time. 

Other upcoming events in our spring public space fling, include our:

March 25 Cyclista Ride with Bike Dance meeting at Grand Army Plaza at 2 PM. 

April 8th, lunch at the POPS, at 622 3rd Avenue POPS arcade. 

April 18 Join us for a bike ride through the endangered community gardens.

April 25th Lungs Spring Awakening Festival at the big tree in El Jardin Paraiso. 

the fading banners from last year's poetry romp. 

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