Poetry Lives on Division Street

For all the people who say poetry’s dead — like me two months ago — I’m here to tell you that poetry lives on Division Street.

On the third Wednesday of every month, the Guild Literary Complex hosts Palabra Pura, their monthly night of poetry and fiction reading. The event’s held at La Bruquena, a Puerto Rican restaurant that has become something of an institution on Paseo Boricua, a.k.a. between the flags.

Full disclosure: the Guild Literary Complex has bought ad space on Gozamos, which had only a sliver to do with why I attended the event on Wednesday, though that isn’t to say I wouldn’t have gone otherwise.

My reasons for going to Palabra Pura aside, Jesus Christ am I glad I went.

Admittedly I didn’t know what I was going to encounter. I thought it was going to be a bunch of graying old farts reciting amateurish, contrived, out-of-touch verses in mostly Spanish. But Wednesday night turned out to be one of those rare occasions where I was happily and completely wrong.

While there was a decent collection of older folks there, plenty of young people were in the audience as well — and I’d like to think they weren’t there just to see their poetry professor who read during the open mic and was giving her students in attendance extra credit.

I didn’t go with anyone, so I did what most guys do whenever they show up stag someplace: I ordered a stiff drink at the bar and posted up along the wall toward the back of the room.

The night’s program was one pleasant surprise after another. There were verses about life on the street, life as a young Latina, life locked up in a cell and life as a foreigner in your own country — and that was just the open mic portion of the night.

Once the professionals hit the stage I could tell their sophisticated nuances and expert craftsmanship were mostly lost on the philistine 20-somethings who’d showed up for the extra credit. Audience members began trickling out of the room, starting with the younger crowd, who politely grabbed their coats and headed for the exit as though the reader had said something mildly offensive. That’s a shame, because while the open mic offered a glimpse at the poetic vein coursing through the neighborhood, the headliners provided what amounted to a clinic in poetry and prose.

I stayed til the end with the rest of the committed.

Teresa Vázquez, a poet of Afro-Cuban descent who grew up on the South Side and acted as curator for Wednesday’s event, uttered lines that to me seemed worthy of Maya Angelou’s poetry book, especially her poem “A Woman Loving.” Her passion for the art and her excitement for hearing the poets share their work were infectious.

Elizabeth Marino got the ball rolling with her beautiful everyday observations. She’s a poet who describes what she sees, but it helps that she sees more than most. Her poems depict train rides through the New Mexican desert and bus rides through Lakeview. She drudges up such sensitive issues as abortion and the United States government’s presence on the island of Vieques. I bought her collection Debris, made sure to get it signed, and proudly placed it in the poetry section of my bookcase.

A Mexican-Puerto Rican-Irish poet from the Twin Cities was up next. Emmanuel Ortiz struck me as a hipster version of Junot Díaz — and if you’re reading this, Emmanuel, I really do mean that in a good way. (I’ve had the honor of meeting Díaz. The guy’s uptight.) Ortiz brought a chill vibe to the room with his casual wit. His most memorable poems talked about assimilation and racism against Mexicans, and the moment he shared with his father when Marvin Gaye died back in ’84.

Then author Lucrecia Guerrero took to the stage. She immediately offered a disclaimer: she wasn’t a poet, but a fiction writer. Yet, seeing as she’d been invited to a poetry event, she brought with her three of her shortest stories to read. I felt a groan rise up somewhere inside of me. I love short stories, but I hate having them read to me. I find the other person’s voice too distracting. I get caught up in how someone is saying something and start to ignore a lot of what they’re saying.

Interestingly enough, though Guerrero confessed to not being a poet, much of the stories she shared read like poetry. She has a penchant for describing landscape and tying it to the mood, which always earns a few brownie points from me. Whenever she finished a story I found myself wondering how long I’d gone without breathing.

Then there was Paul Martínez-Pompa. I wouldn’t be stupid enough to say he was the best poet of the night outright, because poetry being as personal and intimate as it is, given a handful of expert poets, it’s wrong to say that this person’s poetry is better than that person’s. All I can say is that Paul’s poetry — I hope I can call him Paul — spoke to me. That’s a cliché of course. What I mean to say is his poetry expressed things I thought were unique to me and a few other people on earth. And he has a way of ending his poems with slicing wit or piercing thoughtfulness.

I really hope to bring these poets and their words to you in a fuller way in the future, because just touching lightly on them in the context of a recap doesn’t do them justice.

But the point of this article is to introduce you to the Guild Literary Complex (if you haven’t heard of them) and Palabra Pura (if you’ve never been). The point of these 1,000-odd words is to explain what it’s like to be in your city, in the neighborhood you were born in (Humboldt Park in my case), and see artists share the work, the outpouring of self they’ve dedicated so much of their lives to.

Not only was it an honor and a privilege to be in attendance this past Wednesday night, it also felt important. It did more for me than for the poets themselves.

Exactly what that is, I’m not sure yet.

But I know I’ll be going back to Palabra Pura next month to find out.

[Photo: V. H. Hammer via Flickr]

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