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A renaissance of rhyme: Another golden age for city's poetry

Jive Poetic

Jive Poetic Photo Credit: Jive Poetic

Poetry is slammin’ in New York City.

The Friday night poetry slams at the Nuyorican Poets Café in Alphabet City are among the hottest tickets in town. Poetry in Motion — the popular punches of verse that appeared in the subways from 1992 to 2008 — was not only brought back last year, but expanded to taxis. The New York Public Library recently conducted a National Poetry Contest via Twitter that drew more than 700 entries from around the world.

And across the city, people gather in book stores and bars to share the music of their heart, bare the secrets of their souls, and savor the carefully crafted words of other New Yorkers orating about love, police harassment, high rents, relatives, salsa, identity and genetically modified food, among other topics.

“There is a renaissance of poetry in New York City,” said Jennifer Benka, executive director for the Academy for American Poets. Poetry’s popularity is of little surprise, given the power it has had from New York’s early days: Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Frank O’Hara, Langston Hughes, the Beat Poets (Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg among them), Amiri Baraka, and Audre Lorde — among others — all had roots or sought sanctuary in NYC, often sipping inspiration from the city. It is a poem (“The New Colossus,” penned by Emma Lazarus in 1883 to raise money for the Statue of Liberty and now on its pedestal) that “truly welcomes people to this city,” Benka noted.

NYC boasts well regarded poetry programs at CUNY, Columbia and New York University, but the spoken word explosion sparked on streets. “Spoken word could not be stronger,” said Daniel Gallant, executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Café, which is doubling in size.

While risk-taking shoestring venues are continually threatened by rising rents, poetry “is a very affordable, portable, and personal art form you can do anywhere,” Gallant noted.

“Probably 50% of all New Yorkers are poets," joked Erik Maldonado, 33, a poet from Kingsbridge, the Bronx, who goes by the stage name Advocate of Wordz. Maldonado makes a living web designing, teaching poetry and touring.
Many in the spoken word scene labor in unrelated day jobs, participating in poetry events at night with other people who are also committed to creative self expression that gives shape and meaning to their lives.

Social media has not only allowed spoken word aficionados to find each other but permitted emerging artists to market their work. themselves and their work. “The most successful poets in New York have strong social media identities,” noted Gallant. “Poems are made for the digital age,”agreed Benka.“You can read them on your phone! I read poems when I’m commuting to work. They are highly shareable objects,” Benka enthused.

Writing and performing poetry is a cathartic and therapeutic outlet for all the frustrations so familiar to New Yorkers, observed Jive Poetic, 37, a Crown Heights poet who hosts an open slam at the Nuyorican and coaches its poetry slam team.

“The poem itself doesn’t change the problem, but it helps people identify what the problem is and gets it out there,” he explained. The Nuyorican slam team performed a poem in August about the NYPD's Stop 'n' Frisk policy at the National Poetry Slam in Boston (they placed second), that was very well received, Poetic recalled.

“People shouldn’t have to suffer to create great art,” but suffering, hardship and struggle — conditions rampant in NYC — “foster creativity and the creation of compelling art,” said Gallant.

New York “is a powerful place to live” for poets, said Sharon Olds, an Upper West Side resident who won the Pultizer Prize for poetry this year for her collection, “Stag’s Leap.”

Olds is a professor of English at NYU, but is impressed by the spoken word artists unaffiliated with colleges who are nonetheless “incredibly talented young writers. ... The more poems that are out there, the better it is.”


Check out these stops for poems and spoken word
The “One-Stop Shop for the Spoken Word” maintains a calendar of the city’s open mike nights and slams. Most events are free or under $10.

Nuyorican Poets Cafe
This 40-year-old institution at 236 E. 3rd St. is home to the insanely popular Friday Night Poetry Slam, Open Mic Mondays and Wednesday night slams, as well.

Greenlight Bookstore
Has a poet on staff, Angel Nafis, who curates readings. Will also send out alerts for readings if you sign up.
Sign up online to get a (free!) Poem-A-Day in your email, peruse posted poetry and check out the events calendar at this site for the Academy of American Poets.

Poets House
Home to 50,000 volumes of poetry, a multimedia archive and an online catalog, this lower Manhattan sanctuary also sponsors programs and events.

The louderARTS Project
An artists collective that runs poetry workshops and cheap Monday night poetry slams at Union Square’s Bar 13.

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