“I Want to Hear Poems, Not Poison”

Photo: Alyce Adkins

Photo: Alyce Adkins

The Nuyorican Poets Café is a narrow, two-story hole in the wall nestled at the corner of Avenue C and East 3rd . Its interior is dimly lit, and its aged characteristics are as humble as the performers that are anticipated to grace the stage.

As a Friday night poetry slam novice, I did not anticipate the mass popularity that the hub garners. If you’re new, you might want to show up thirty-minutes earlier than the time stated on your ticket. If not, you might end up like the 15+ guests who found themselves seatless and cushioned by their outerwear on the floor. 

This safe haven for artistic expression features a DJ booth adorned with graffiti art, a balcony that overlooks the masses, and a bar serving what looks to be Kombucha, beer, and an assortment of wines. As guests fill into their seats of the loft-like venue, it slowly begins to look a lot like children huddled around a campfire, ready for story time.  

Upon entering the filled-to-capacity café, I declare myself lucky, as my eyes connect with an empty seat in the front row. My seat is nuzzled between two women who I deemed polar opposites. On my left, accompanied by two friends, is a young Latina woman—beer in hand, thoroughly enjoying the DJ’s selection of Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” To my right, there is a white woman in her mid-30s, who is a bit more refined in disposition—hands in lap, patiently waiting for the show to start. 

The center stage is minimal in width and structure, allowing performers a lenient two steps in each direction. The wooden platform is brought to life by a fierce key light that illuminates the slim mic-stand, which projects its shadow onto the brick wall behind it. 

As I take in my surroundings—left to right, up and down, I am surprised but not disappointed by the multicultural diversity that neighbors me. The union of Black, White, Latinx, and international guests becomes evident as I see a variety of lips syncing to the boastful lyrics of Whitney Houston’s, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” During the chorus, The DJ strategically cuts the music, which reveals the harmonious, out-of-tune singing of “Oh I wanna dance with somebody… with somebody who loves me!” I don’t know if it is the refreshments or the DJ’s master playlist or the fact that the audience members are squeezed together like sardines, but I’ve never felt a more powerful sense of togetherness, and ironically, in a place I came to alone. 

After a 30-minute interlude of songs ranging from ‘90s hip-hop to Caribbean Soca, the audience is introduced to a good-humored host, rightfully named Jive Poetic. The emcee christens the stage with a dance number before informing the audience of a Nuyorican sacred tradition. He then instructs someone to hit the lights and declares, “Everybody stand up—oh and hold your purses, you’re still in New York City.” The audience rises without contemplation, and Jive Poetic reveals the rules.

“When Rico plays the song, I want you to dance—like you know what I’m saying! If you know the words, I want you to sing the words, like you know what I’m saying! Were gonna remake the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”

Before anyone has a chance to object, he shouts “If you’re with me, I want you to say yeah!” The audience screams a unanimous “yeah!” and simultaneously, the familiar tempo of “Poison” by Bell Biv DeVoe blares from the speakers. In an instant, the café transforms into a soiree, where guests showcase their best ‘90s dance moves, some of which include: the simple two-step, the arm-swinging cabbage patch, and the iconic running man. The scene was comical and eased the anxiety that I didn’t realize I was harboring. 

Photo: Alyce Adkins

Photo: Alyce Adkins

Opening the show is Anthony McPherson, an acclaimed Nuyorican Grand Slam poet, native New Yorker and biracial-black male of Middle Eastern decent.

“I heard someone in the audience say, I want to hear poems, not ‘Poison.’” The audience laughs, and he begins his poem, smirking, “Well here’s some poison for you…” There’s a pause followed by a catapult statement: “I don’t see race.” 

McPherson’s candor, wit, and sarcasm toward topics like race, identity, and activism are prevalent themes in his work and are similarly woven into the rhetoric of other Slam Battle participants. Another poet begins his rhyme with more subtle remarks: “I woke up this morning and decided to be Black and happy.” 

The Nuyorican Poets Café has become a melting pot that prides itself on cultivating creativity and constructing a sanctuary for black and brown people alike to express themselves without feeling the need to conform to the standards that are beyond their regal blue doors.