Archive for the ‘rich villar’ Category

For My Last Trick

By Rich Villar


I am only beginning to unpack the assorted questions about poetry, poetics, and the public role of poets, that the Dodge Poetry Festival opened up for me.  I suspect I must write more eventually, if only just a little bit in the small space I have left.  Here, what I’ll tell you mostly is what’s been happening in my own head since then.  That is, I need to tell you about the life I live as a poet in the world, and how it meshes (mashes?) with the world of Poetry, capital P.

On a Sunday, I danced in the same aisle of the NJPAC with Rita Dove and Fred Viebahn, and I sat in front of Nancy Morejón.  On a Monday, I was checking into my office gossip and frowning at my task list.  These things seem to want to feel separate, as if I’m cheating on the life that sustains me with the life that keeps my bills at bay.  Should it be this way?  Am I doomed to be Wallace Stevens, the corporate day jobber who lived his everyday as an insurance VP, tapping out scansions with his feet as he walked to work, a phantom poet in a suit?  Is this Poetry?

Whenever I think about it, I’m always fascinated by how the poet Renato Rosaldo described his book presentation at a university in Northern Mexico.  How professors from each department (Renato is a social anthropologist as well) would come prepared with questions about his poetry collection, how much reverence they would pay him simply because he was a poet.  How this was not foreign or strange, but rather an everyday occurrence in the life of a poet in Mexico.  How for the professors, poetry was part of their discipline, not anethema to it.

I think of this approach to poetry as multidisciplinary practice, and I think of poetry as a university subject, and I think of the literary salon I attended recently in which an audience of writers was solely interested in talking fiction, sales numbers, and niche marketing, and I think of this unwieldy and large poetry festival in the middle of downtown Newark, and Poetry (capital P) could easily become this shifty character in my life, sometimes spectacle and sometimes hobby, one I would hardly know what to do with when I’m struck with a line at my desk.  Ah, yes, and there’s my desk…that is, my work desk, which is always buried in deadline-sensitive material, 40 hours out of every week. 

I’m often accused of being aloof, confrontational to the point of my own detriment, when the conversation turns to this monster that poets refer to as the po-biz, the poetry business.  I don’t mean to be.  But I can’t always wrap my mind around how the wider world wants me to engage with my art.  I don’t always know the protocols of behavior at poetry readings.  I don’t know how to act in a way that makes editors and foundational bigwigs want to check for me.  If there’s a way to do this, frankly, I don’t want to know.  I know how to write poems.  (However badly I may do that.)  These poems come to me already, in my sleep, at my desk, in my car, sitting with my wife or my friends.  Why would I want to sap my time wondering how to negotiate the web of agents and moneyholders and friends of That Editor Over There? 

Which brings me back to the Dodge Festival.  I didn’t recap every single day for two big reasons:  1) My computer was on the fritz, and my wife was using hers when we were in our hotel.  2) I was too busy enjoying poetry—and in another sense, witnessing it—to record it all.  That second reason sounds counterintuitive.  Shouldn’t a witness want to record things?  Yes, and no.  I come from a school of poetry that experiences the art form in the air as much as on the page, one that believes that it is a communal music meant to be enjoyed in the moment with others. 

And that is precisely what I did for four days in Newark.  I didn’t care about being a poet in the poetry world.  I didn’t need to impress or posture or slip a manuscript into someone’s hands.  I was a poet with an ear who was there to listen and discuss and absorb.  Granted, that’s much easier when the poetry in question is fed to you via state-of-the-arts audio systems and concert halls, and when an entire tent is set up just for poetry books.  But this is what I’d prefer for my capital P Poetry to be:  a way of living, not a living.  An art form, not a debate club.  Something that is always with me, in my strides, no matter what I do.  Not something I have to set aside and fight over after work.  To the extent that the Dodge Festival is able to contribute to a life of contemplation and poetry…even if it’s only every two years…I’d like to see it continue.

Now, having said all that.  I also believe that my enjoyment of the poetry at the bone level at this festival has a LOT to do with the fact that my face was welcomed into the tent.   This Festival, more than any event I’ve been to in years, truly engaged and addressed the things I hate discussing about “Poetry.”  P.  There was a need this time, I felt it, to bring my brown face, and faces like mine, into the tent, literally. 

Consider that at this festival, the organizers made a Boricua poet (Martín Espada) and a Latin jazz ensemble (Bobby Sanabria and Grupo Ache) the centerpiece of Saturday night’s programming.  That the next morning, the same group welcomed an Afro-Cubana (Nancy Morejón) together with them to give voice to Neruda, Lorca, and Guillen…partially in Yoruba.  And that on Friday night, Amiri Baraka was able, in his hometown, to reprise the same poem that lost him the New Jersey Poet Laureate’s job eight years prior, at the very same festival where he read it in 2002.  The fact that a state-of-the-art production went into poets who are touchstones for poets like me is a big deal, one that makes me hopeful that the conversations we hate, the capital P’s, can vanish in our lifetime. 

If the Dodge Foundation can do it right, think of how many other institutions can do it right, too.  

I’m hopeful these days, more so than I’ve ever been, that when the lines come to me, I’ll be able to write them down and be true to the poet, not to the business of poetry.

If you’re interested in contacting me, please do so!  You can reach me at my regular blog, literatiboricua.blogspot.com, and I can be found on Facebook as well.


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By Rich Villar


Somewhere down the street from here, Amiri Baraka is still at the afterparty.  He turned 76 today.  I don’t know where the energy comes from, but if they’re handing any out at the food tent today, I may have to stop by. I am already full.  I’m going to need whatever Amiri’s got.  I just got back to my hotel from a reading with 24 of the poets at the Dodge Poetry Festival, and this is clearly going to be a hell of an event.

Full disclosure:  My wife, Tara Betts, is one of the festival poets.  This means I get the neat-o “Festival Guest” badge that affords me a bit of a backstage pass.  It was this access that allowed me to bear witness to one of the best poetry readings I have ever seen, bar none, on this first day of the festival.  And shockingly (!) it wasn’t at a bar.  And it wasn’t even at the NJPAC, although that reading was amazing too.  No, this reading was at the Newark Symphony Hall, and it was part of the Dodge Foundation’s ongoing effort to bring poetry to the schools.  In this case, the schools in question were the Newark Public Schools, and about 1300 middle school kids showed up for a reading featuring Jericho Brown, Michael Cirelli, and the aforementioned Ms. Betts.

First of all, my hat goes off to Dodge festival director Martin Farawell and program associate Khalil Murrell for spearheading such a technically challenging event and bringing world class poets to these kids at the same time.  Having organized events in and out of the public school system, I can tell you that the more seamless a large event appears, you can bet that someone has been pulling 12-hour days to make it happen.  Add to that the difficulty of dealing with various educational bureaucracies, security in and out of the venue, transportation and chaperoning for the children, and coordinating on the fly with the Mayor’s office (which I witnessed firsthand), and you’d be willing to nominate this crew for Nobel prizes.  And it was a CREW.  Martin and Khalil had several amazing staffs contributing to the effort, including volunteers from the Dodge Foundation, NJPAC, teachers and administrators from the school system, the staff of the Newark Symphony Hall, and several officials from city government.  Still, I’m floored by how the organizers were able to keep the poets, the kids, the teachers, and the Mayor happy.  These are major skills, and they deserve a ton of recognition. 

May I just say, if you have not read Jericho Brown’s ,  Please,Tara Betts’,  Arc and Hue, or Michael Cirelli’s, Lobster With Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Vacations on the Black Star Line, please log off this blog and go buy these titles.  Seriously, I’ll wait.  Amazon is your friend.  Okay, then.  To the event… 

Jericho and Tara both included a tribute to the late Lucille Clifton in their sets, reading poems that showed a bit of Ms. Clifton’s subversive side:  “Cruelty,” and “Why Some People Be Mad At Me Sometimes.”  Both poems, while radically different, at their heart are still about truthfulness in the face of a world that values violence over truth, and about not staying silent.  The poems set the tone for an object lesson to the assembled kids:  that their stories, their city, and their lives are valuable.  All three of the poets, in their sets, chose poems that told such individual stories, and read them out loud in such an engaging manner, that the kids were enraptured by them.  And the kids weren’t quiet, either.  They were involved. They sang along with Jericho’s rendition of the chorus from Minnie Riperton’s “Loving You.”  They sat at full attention and gave the familiar “yeah” and “mmhmm!” when Tara asked them serious questions about the perceptions of being a young person in Newark.  And they surprised even themselves when Michael had them recite from memory lines from the Notorious B.I.G…and Langston Hughes. 

I must also say, even though this may show a bit of my own bias, that a less-than-visionary organizer could have chosen to put on a raucous spoken word show that was more entertainment than engagement, and then couched the show in the need to “get children excited about poetry.”  There was no need for a primer here.  These kids got served pure poetry:  accessible, relevant, well-crafted, and performed well without the verbal gymnastics that often mask content.  When there were theatrical techniques at play, they served the work.  That is what the kids needed to see, and what they responded to so well.  The Q&A after the reading got both the crowd and the poets thinking about the big questions that roll around the heads of 7th graders.  What does it mean to be “ghetto?”  How do you write even when your family doesn’t approve?  How can you make art part of a busy life?  They could not have chosen three better poets to represent and answer these kinds of questions.  Jericho Brown, Ph.D.; Michael Cirelli, executive director of Urban Word NYC; and Tara Betts, the teaching artist and University lecturer.  The idea that the children have been introduced to art, have intellectualized its influence even for one day, is a powerful idea, and it’s one that I hope the Dodge Festival continues to pursue. 

This festival, so far, has represented a palpable shift, not so much in the kinds of audiences the Festival is aiming for, but its willingness to showcase all kinds of voices, from all kinds of backgrounds, to the audiences that traditionally show up for the Dodge festival, and the new audiences that Newark will bring to it; and in the case of the kids from Newark, to expose students from all walks to the true face of American poetry.  Marie Ponsot said it from the podium at NJPAC’s Prudential Hall:  “This is what American poetry looks like.”

Tomorrow, there are readings on the main stage featuring Aimee Nezhutumatathil, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Amiri Baraka, and Galway Kinnell, among others.  And there are craft talks with Martin Espada, Nancy Morejon, and Kathleen Graber.  Much to talk about.  Much to take in.

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By Rich Villar


This is the time of year when it’s too cold to leave the house without a hoodie, but not cold enough to blast your landlord out of his pants with heat complaints.  I love this time of year because it means more of those chilly grey days that stir the metaphors resting on the edges of my brain.  But once every two years, it also means that the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation is getting ready to put on the kind of show poets love the best:  large, unwieldy, and full of other poets.  

I will be taking a much-needed respite from my day job to go play with the other poets at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, site of this year’s Dodge Poetry Festival. They are moving it from NJ’s Waterloo Village, a significantly more down tempo historical village and grist mill in Sussex County, to the city of Newark, and one of the most gorgeous concert venues in the United States.  I’m perfectly okay with this, since NJPAC is also located down the street from Don Pepe’s, one of the best Spanish restaurants in Jersey.  And I mean Spanish as in SPANISH, de España, with as much paella and tomfoolery as a roomful of poets can muster, which is a lot.  Of course I go to events like these because it’s nice to have one’s colleagues together in a semi-intellectual/literary setting, but there is something more basic in my need to be in these spaces listening to poetry with people I actually enjoy being with.  I need to be a poet among poets, but I always enjoy being human first.  Which is cool too, since poetry humanizes, as my friend Martin Espada is fond of saying.

So, I will be blogging from the festival, the largest poetry festival in North America, which will include a musical interlude by one of my favorite jazz salseros, Bobby Sanabria, as well as the participation of the acclaimed Afro-Cuban poet Nancy Morejon.  There are more Latino poets participating this year than in the last festival…which is to say they’ve gone from one to three.  That caveat aside, the diversity of this lineup is quite eye-opening, and I think it may represent an interesting and long-overdue shift in how we perceive American poetry and poets, both in terms of demographics and aesthetics.  We’ll see what happens.

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The Bridge

By Rich Villar


My thanks to the editors of the Tidal Basin Review, first and foremost, for the opportunity to speak.  I hope I’ll be able to listen, as well.


My wife and I were crossing the George Washington Bridge when I was asked to write an essay on the topic of SB 1070, the Arizona state law which seeks to ban Mexicans from the state.  (I know that isn’t what the bill’s sponsors say it does, but lately I’ve been interested in saying what things actually are, instead of what things are intended to be.)  I thought I had a lot to say on the topic.  I suppose I still do.  But there was something that stopped me from doing it.  I’m trying to understand what that something was.  Is.

I remember this old gray bridge from the days my parents and I would cross it to go visit my aunt and uncle in a live wire barrio of bodegas and Chinese Cuban restaurants and charlatanes called Washington Heights, NYC.  Tío was the super of a building on 207th and Vermiliya, and while the neighborhood is technically called Inwood, my Jerseyfied parents understood that it was the Hispanic neighborhood next to the Bridge, and that’s all they needed to know.  I was maybe four or five at the time, and I don’t recall much, but what stayed with me still informs my writing.  I can hear the booming male voice of Radio WADO’s Spanish-language newscaster coming through clear as a priest from Tía’s radio, which was located next to the Nilla wafers atop the refrigerator.  It stopped everything cold, even my restless big wheel rides into the boiler room of their building.  Even the adult conversations, which I was always interrupting.  Everything stopped, and everyone focused on a little off-white sound box booming the news we did not hear on Channel 7. 

I want to write like Radio WADO.  

I also want to write curses to Joe Arpaio from Maricopa County, Arizona, the frog-like sheriff whose job it is to joyfully nurture the bastard children of Jim Crow along the U.S.-Mexican border, and wherever else he can find a news camera.  I want to curse him because I am not Mexican.  My parents are Cuban and Puerto Rican, and Washington Heights is Dominican, and the George Washington Bridge connects Fort Lee, New Jersey, to Manhattan and the Bronx, and no matter what, it will always lead you to people who are not white.  And that is what I was born into.  Not outside of the U.S. border, but safely within it.  I’m neither legend nor myth.  I’m American.

This week, an American boy from New Jersey jumped from the George Washington Bridge.  Because his roommate, another American boy, and his roommate’s girlfriend, also American, made a video of his private liaisons with another boy and distributed it on the internet.  Because apparently this is funny.  The boy, Tyler Clementi, attended the University where my wife works, and the students were clearly upset by it.  I was not upset, precisely, but there have been so many episodes in the last two years, since the election of the nation’s first Black President, that have told me, like a radio announcer, of the death of human empathy.

I wanted someone to tell me why this needed to happen.  I wanted someone, maybe the President, to tell me why gay people can’t marry, why Muslims can’t build a recreational center near the site of the World Trade Center, why a feminist Secretary of State has apologized to Guatemala for forced medical experimentation yet never got the memo on the sterilization of Puerto Rican women, or Native American women, or Black women. 

Here’s the life I’ve chosen:  I’m a poet, and thus, I have to be the teller.  I have to stop the conversations and movements in their tracks and get ears and eyes and minds to focus, if only for a moment, on the sound of Spanish and English telling everything that needs telling.  Yes, Spanish and English, and any other language I need to speak with.

There’s something like an ars poetica forming in my head around the George Washington Bridge, and I’ve been working on it for a minute, but it’s been interrupted now and again by all the news that has nothing to do with Joe Arpaio, all that fire of James Baldwin’s prophetic nightmares.  Truth be told, the republic outside my Tía’s kitchen has always been burning.  I’m on this bridge now, feeling the heat of that fire, trying to decide whether to put it out, or set another.

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Introducing TBR Blogger for October,

Rich Villar!



Rich Villar is the executive director of The Acentos Foundation, a
Bronx, NYC-based organization dedicated to the study, presentation,
and support of poetry and writing by Latinos and Latinas in the U.S.
and abroad. He serves as co-editor of THE ACENTOS REVIEW, and
his poems and essays have appeared in RATTAPALLAX, MIPOESIAS, LATINO
POETRY REVIEW, and the acclaimed chapbook series ACHIOTE SEEDS. He is
at work on his first full-length collection of poems and makes his
home in New Jersey with his wife, poet Tara Betts.


Welcome, Rich Villar!



Melanie Henderson,

Managing Editor

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