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The City and the Writer: In New York City with Willie Perdomo

By Nathalie Handal

Special City Series / New York City 2012

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

            Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of New York City as you feel/see it?

There's something sepulchral about New York City these days. The places are no longer the places, the faces are distinctly stranger, everything is shapeless, and I constantly find myself talking with ghosts when I walk by street corners. It helps to know that the 5 train is arriving in two minutes, but the rush to catch it can drain the soul's commute. I was born and raised in New York City and I can't ever recall a time when the economy was so banged up that folks stole sewer lids to sell for scrap. The prospect of living in a city whose property is owned by one percent of its tax-documented inhabitants is not that far removed from being at a craps game where the dice are cooked. It makes me conjure the monstrous facades that occupied some of Lorca's Depression-era, New York City poems. You have to have good lenses to look beyond the current, thoroughly sanitized, cityscape and put your ear to the ground to hear the rumble of madness. There's a feeling that the folks who are running New York City are looking at the old and mis-educated, the sick and impoverished, and basically saying, “Your life ain't worth shit.” You look for your sublime where you can find it and I recently went atop an East Harlem rooftop to get a finer look at the luna gigante and came back home with one of those ineffable moments that lends itself to myth and memory.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Nathalie, you're messing with my dreamscape right now, sis! During those early post-Civil Rights years, my mother endured some horrific instances of domestic violence that my pre-teen eyes had no business being privy to. It was at the point that I started looking at books as portals out of the city.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city? 

The fact that the New York Police Department stopped and frisked almost 200,000+ young Black & Latino males in the first quarter of 2012 and that East Harlem has the highest number of housing projects in the city. If we could find a way to understand that living—the art of living—is a mutual endeavor, and that our humanity is non-negotiable, New York City's brilliance would equal its surface bling. I always think of that moment during the Depression, when Langston Hughes leaves Godmother's house with a ream of good bond, a few custom-tailored suits, and he sees a homeless man near the Waldorf-Astoria, and decides that if he's going to write about folks on the street, he couldn't do it from a penthouse. I can't imagine having the luxury to look the other way and hardly any of us get a Skycam look at the Empire State Building on a beautiful fall night. But when I think that Sonera Ponceña found the fire in their swing on 110th Street, or when I think of the first time I broke night, or the first time I got laid, I fall in love with the city all over again. 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

John Rodriguez is one of the Bronx's most well-kept secrets.

Is there a place here you return to often?

When I come up for air and go on my seasonal hang-out, I like to head uptown and bounce from Camaradas El Barrio to 108th Street Lounge to Club Los Gallos, and then back to Camaradas El Barrio to smoke cigars, sing after-hours salsa karaoke and have debates about who's the better singer: El Sonero Mayor or El Cantante. I go where the ties that bind are, sis, and more often than not that means north of 103rd Street, from river to river.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Damn, you just gave me a good idea for an entrepreneurial venture: A tour of iconic Harlem literary settings. Go to the corner where Claude Brown used to scrap & fisticuff daily; to the rooftop where Piri Thomas used to scream his poems to the world; to the bench where Julia De Burgos collapsed from heartbreak; to the neighborhood where Lorca saw a Puerto Rican woman so beautiful that he wrote his mother, convinced that they were the most beautiful in the world; where Jack Agueros wrote his sonnets; where Pedro Pietri ignited a revolution; where Henry Dumas was tragically shot; where Toni Cade Bambara told our usable truths; where Lou Reed waited for his connection; where Carlito Brigante weighed the angles; the bushes where Miguel Pinero slept; the subway line where Audre Lorde wrote her poems; the SEEK program where Adrienne Rich used to teach in the 1970s . . . Yeah, that would be dope. In the meantime, while I create a business plan, go to A Gathering of Tribes in the East Village and read a poem to Steve Cannon. Don't bother bringing a copy of the poem for him to read, by the way, because he's blind. He has to hear the poem.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

East Harlem's Afro-Boricua swag & sound has always cast its charm on me. There was a time in East Harlem where you could get spiritual advice, buy a love potion, a crate of platanos, try your luck for $1 at 600-to-1 odds, get a haircut, listen to griots while you're getting a haircut, learn the newest dance steps, work a crush, and witness a revival all on the same block, in the same neighborhood, on the same day. Now, my favorite buildings have all changed their names. There are still pockets of magic in the old hood, and I exercise my nostalgic impulses for the sake of this interview, but I preserve the hidden cities with all the strength and wonder that I summon to preserve my dream life.

Where does passion live here?

Uptown, after hours, most definitely.

What is the title of one of your poems about New York City and what inspired it exactly?

“Reflections on the Metro-North, Winter 1990,” and it was inspired by a force of love colliding with the force of camaraderie. I was on the Metro-North with my ex, Tanisa, and as the train thundered past East Harlem, my triggers were in such a state of neuroblast that I almost left Tanisa and ruined a romantic weekend. 

Inspired by Levi,“ Outside New York City does an outside exist?”

The outside is always present in New York City. New York City is one big-ass, awe-inspiring Outside. What makes it so is that most people who live in New York City are living an Outside existence: the super-imposed busyness, the ever-growing girth, the synthetic weed you can buy at the corner store—everything is external, facade-like, under construction. You can look at a face on the subway, in the park, on Fifth Avenue, and tell the difference between someone who thinks New York City is the most exotic, eclectic playground in the world, and someone who just came out of a jungle and saw their true reflection. Still, there are the nights when the drink spills in couplets, the moon has swagger, and you stop in front of a bodega to kiss the woman who will one day be your wife and mother of your child and that makes you feel like there's no outside to speak of. I chip off the Zen block sometimes, so there are moments when I'm taking my son to school in the morning rush and know that the outside is really the inside but it takes concentrated nano-meditation.

Willie Perdomo is the author of Where a Nickel Costs a Dime and Smoking Lovely, which received a PEN Open Book Award. He has also been published in The New York Times Magazine, Bomb, Poems of New York and The Harlem Reader. His first children's book, Visiting Langston, received a Coretta Scott King Honor and his follow-up, Clemente! was named a Booklist Top 10 Sports Book for Youth in 2010 and 2011 Américas Award for Children's and Young Adult Literature. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee, a Woolrich Fellow in Creative Writing at Columbia University and is a three-time Fellow in Poetry and Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He has been on the faculty of the VONA Writing Workshops, National Endowment for Humanities Summer Seminar, and currently teaches at Fordham University. He is founder/publisher of Cypher Books.

Published Nov 6, 2012   Copyright 2012 Nathalie Handal

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