After attending several artsy-fartsy events seemingly targeted towards edgy lit students, I was glad to hear of a reading for the PEN Festival where the featured poets were taxi drivers, domestic workers and migrant farmers. How could I be a real Greener if I didn’t have a fondness for the perspectives of the working-class?
Of the eight featured poets, two are from the Taxi Worker Alliance, two are members of Domestic Workers United and four are from the Kingston-based Workers’ Justice Center. Mark Nowak, who facilitated the workshops these poets attended, serves as emcee.
Taxi drivers Seth Goldman and Davidson Garrett read pieces that comment on the nature of taxi-driving while presenting social critiques of NYC. Goldman begins his set with a story about having Mel Brooks as a passenger. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Goldman’s pieces frequently reference NY-specific figures like mayors past and present and describe driving through parts of New York that I have yet to Google. He also critiques policies that affect taxi drivers like Mayor de Blasio’s proposal for black boxes in taxis and the use of mandatory urine testing. The line Does the CEO of Goldman Sachs piss in a cup? deserves to be on bumper stickers. Goldman’s writing is not experimental or avant-garde but it is smart and honest. In contrast to Goldman’s wise-cracks and loquaciousness, Garrett seems more self-possessed. Maybe he honed his sense of calmness through his 36 years of driving a taxi in New York. He name-drops Mahmoud Darwish, Arthur Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald and the apparent interest in literature reflects in the slick language of his work.
The next two poets are domestic workers Christine Lewis and Allison Julien. Lewis, who is also a musician and a published poet, has immense presence. She reads two poems “Anything Goes In the Cassava Patch” and “Mantra for the Domestic Worker”, but the piece that I really like is her poem in the PEN Workshop Poems anthology called “Price of Migration = Slave Labour” which is critical while remaining poetic with lines like cotton picking days ain’t over/madam list, grow, glow, glow/light house keeping, walk dog/let baby be first priority. Next, Julien comes up to the mic and she mentions that she has been a domestic worker for over 20 years before she begins reading her work from her phone. Her piece “New York” is a whimsical ode to the city while her second piece “A Domestic Worker Wrote…”is a critique of the working conditions of domestic workers.
The last four poets are farmworkers from towns in the Hudson River Valley. They read their works in Spanish. Leanne Tory-Murphy, a staff member from the Workers’ Justice Center translates. As Nowak will later point out, it is apparent in the work of the poets that they have all been inspired somewhat by Pablo Neruda.
Ranulfo Sanchez’s “Asi Es Mi Nombre (My Name Is Like This)” is a brilliant acrostic that begins R. ROM. read only memory. Memoria solo de lectura (R. Rom. read only memory. Read only memory.) and ends with O. Los flamingos no bailan RAP solo bailan opera (O. The flamingos do not dance hip-hop they only dance opera.) He reads another poem that features the phrase winter dressed like a bride which is simple yet so sophisticated.
Antonio Valeriano reads “Primavera/Inviemo (Spring/Winter)”, a short piece that compares “spring of a thousand colors” with “sad and desolate winter”. His second piece is a bit longer, and although I do not catch the title, I take note of the lines My heart & my soul cry like this/like a shower of stars under a moonlit night.
Heriberto Sanchez comes next with “Quien Soy Yo? (Who Am I?) and another piece that starts with the line Not everything is as it seems. Both are good pieces, but I prefer the latter for the lines Sometimes someone seems good but they are not/Ice can burn like fire/Fire turns ice into water/but water puts out fire which, aside from being beautifully written, is a pretty cool fact that I never considered before.
The last poet to read is Lourdes Galvan whose poem “Pasajes Que Me Recuerdan a Mis Hijos (Landscapes That Remind Me of My Children)” describes an incident at a bus station with her son and some kind strangers. She gave us dinner but I/because I was sad/could not eat/or sleep/and this is my story, Galvan writes in the poem’s end. Her writing style is very sparse but it just seems fitting.
Lewis ends the program by singing an enthusiastic parody of Harry Belafonte’s “Mama Look At Bubu” rewritten from the perspective of a domestic worker looking after a horrible child.
Overall, I’m appreciative of all the poets and their work. They bring the perspectives of working people into their poetry without compromising on language, and they demonstrate that poetry is for a varied range of demographics.
This PEN Workshop Poems Reading took place on May 3 at SubCulture (45 Bleecker Street).