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The New York Sun

A Nuyorican Who Made Himself An East Village Legend


7 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

Swing by the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the East Village on a Friday and be prepared to wait. Boho types have been lining up for years to listen to wordsmiths use language like swords to slash and challenge each other in the poetry slam arena.

Sitting at the far end of the bar and keeping an eye on all of the action most nights is 63-year-old founder Miguel Algarin, a poet, activist, and provocateur with a head of white hair.

Retired from teaching Shakespeare, American-ethnic literature, and creative writing at Rutgers for nearly two years, Mr. Algarin is keeping busy. The five-time National Book Award winner is launching a publishing house, the Nuyorican Press, which hopes to print about five works a year. One of the first books Mr. Algarin has bought is a volume of poems from Carlton Spiller. Another is a memoir from Half Note Jazz Club owner Michael Cantineri about the times and performers of the famed Manhattan club.

Mr. Algarin opened the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1974, in what was once an old Polish bar called the Sunshine Tavern, partly to get people out of his living room. After two weeks of repairs and painting, he posted a sign on his front door that simply said, "I am up the street at 505."

Within two hours, "The place was crawling," he recalled. "I thought, 'Is this the number of people looking in my door?'"

Soon after, he coined "Nuyorican," his phrase for Puerto Rican New Yorkers.

The cafe moved to its current location on 6th Street between avenues A and B in 1980 after Mr. Algarin bought the building from the city for $10,000. Twenty-five years later, it is still the center of the spoken word for New York City as well as a stage for theatrical, musical, and community events.

"I didn't build it to close, but I didn't expect the phenomenal success, the need people have," Mr. Algarin said while workers industriously refurbished the stage. Construction was under way to build changing rooms for visiting performers and administrative offices.

Before he became an East Village legend, he was a neighborhood fixture. The middle child of a mother who was a factory laborer and a father who was a parking lot attendant, Mr. Algarin grew up at 735 FDR Drive. Then, Puerto Ricans like himself "lived and were kept in the projects before swifting out," he recalled. About the area, he said, "It had a rawness due to very poor Eastern Europeans."

While living at 6th Street and FDR Drive, he developed a love for words, thanks to his mother. From his father, he acquired an appreciation for opera.

"I grew up with people who were not afraid of language, of exposition of their condition through language," he said. "I was a very lucky man."

Still, he didn't write his first poem until April 27, 1967. Inspired by a pork chop-loving cat called Leander, Mr. Algarin was at his kitchen table when he drafted the first stanzas.

"I realized that day that I was able to put words around an experience and have the whole of it in a short amount of time," he said. "What I am saying is I learned about condensing experience. ...It's not prose-like. You're not at liberty to tell every nuance of every color. You are learning to suggest one particular color that richly yields the other.

"In order to be a good poetry reader, you have to have a sense of intuition," he continued. "The most successful poems are the most specific ones. A very specific poem can yield you universal images that you otherwise would not have."

Mr. Algarin was already well on his way to being an academic. He went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison for his bachelor's in English and then obtained a master's in English at Penn State two years later. He went on to Rutgers University for a Ph.D. in comparative literature.

It's hard to believe, but Mr. Algarin did spend time away from New York City. What drove such an urban creature to the heartland? Love.

Enrolled at City College but taking some classes at Columbia, he fell madly in love with a Barnard student. "I lived down here and I would take the subway past 116th St.," he said. "It was all I could do to stay until 137th Street and go to class because I would get off and look at her window. One day, I got up and said, 'I can't handle this.' I took a plane to Madison, Wisc., and went, 'I won a scholarship. I want entrance.' I almost got in within 24 hours."

The move in January of 1961 was an eye-opener. Soon after landing in the frigid city in the dead of winter break, he got a job as a dishwasher at Glenn & Ann's, a pit stop for country singers heading to Chicago and the northwest.

"The very first day I washed dishes, I heard Hank Williams," Mr. Algarin remembered. "Now, who the f- was Hank Williams? I never heard anything like it. I was spellbound. I thought it was the corniest, most outrageous man in love with woman, woman hooking up with his brother, being jilted, getting cut in the face in a fight - they went deep into the saltier side of life. That made it extraordinary listening.

"White trash was legitimately something that indicates a level of poverty that was even more down than being a Puerto Rico in the projects," he added. "These people were nomads. They still lived by the gun. And, an awful lot of times, by what they hunted. ... America became a reality for me. I was no longer aware of Macy's, Gimbel's, and 42nd St. Now I knew there was an America that I would only see in the cowboy movies."

Mr. Algarin, who has penned 10 books of poems and is the editor of seven anthologies, continues to write every day. He's shopping for a publisher for a recently finished four-volume book of poems titled "Dirty Beauty." The topic of the five-year effort: physical beauty. He is hard at work on another book, an anthology of poetry dealing with sexuality.

"How do you feel somebody?" he asked. "They penetrate you through their eyes, through the nose. When it is not sexual, you tend not to notice. ... I am looking for someone brave enough to stand with me to publish it. Because it is the most difficult moment in a relationship: when we try to pierce from the outside into the inside."

Inspiration can strike anywhere. "If I were looking for special colors to be inspired, special shapes, special people, I wouldn't be writing," he said firmly. "I would be looking to get inspired. Those who look to get inspired so they could write are not writers. They are falsifiers."

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