Up For Natl Award, Poet Willie Perdomo's Ode To El Barrio

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Image: Willie Perdomo
Poet Willie Perdomo at his home in Exeter, N.H. His recent poetry book, “ The Essential Hits Of Shorty Bon Bon” has been nominated for a National Book Award. Daffys and PaperwhitesJon Crispin

When he was a boy, the prize-winning poet Willie Perdomo witnessed the wildly unthinkable from a familiar, friendly perch, his third-floor window outside his El Barrio or Spanish Harlem project building in New York. The window was his cinematic frame.

“From there, I saw everything. I heard everything,” Perdomo told NBC News.

The window looked out on a connecting project building, where on the 6th floor rooftop, three boys played a high-risk, daredevil game of follow the leader. One, "Kid Torres" they called him, fast-walked the dangerously narrow ledge of the building’s 50-yard expanse as if it were a high wire. Perdomo feared the boy would plummet to what would surely be his death.

In that moment, “I was thinking this is mythological, this is insane, this is legendary. Where else would one see something like this?” Perdomo recalled.

“Later on, it kind of dawned on me, if one were to ask me, ‘Why did you become a poet?’ In many ways, it’s me trying to walk on that ledge without falling,” said Perdomo.

The 47-year-old poet and author is walking the literary tightrope just fine these days and still marveling at his Nuyorican landscape. His newest collection, “The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon,” is generating high praise, including some from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz, who wrote on Perdomo’s website: “There is no poet alive who can match the lyrical intelligence, ferocious wit and searching humanity of Willie Perdomo. Perdomo is the hurricane we all write home about."

Earlier this year, the National Book Critics Circle nominated “The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon” for its prestigious annual awards, given to the best autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, general nonfiction and poetry. Winners will be announced March 12th.

“I’m really happy for the book, even more happy for my uncle (Pedro) and I wish that he was around to come to the readings with me,” Perdomo said during a telephone call from Exeter, New Hampshire, where he is an English instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy.

"It seems poets at times give those unexamined lives a voice," says Perdomo.

Dedicated to his uncle, a Puerto Rican who played percussion on live studio recordings by salsa great Charlie Palmieri, “The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon” is a powerful collection crackling with the sounds, rhythms and street lexicon of salseros, soneros, musicians, jam sessions and poets during the late 1960s, when the salsa music movement was in its nascent stages in New York City. Perdomo never met his uncle, who died some years ago. The book reimagines his life as it seeks to recreate the memory of his years in New York.

“It celebrates the stories my mother (Carmen) told me about his involvement in that (salsa music) scene,” Perdomo said. His uncle had lingered in his consciousness for years.

“I was always thinking about my uncle as a vehicle for a narrative,” Perdomo said. “I started to write a novel about a conga player and I had about 46 bad pages of it.”

Perdomo tossed it, but the path toward reimagining Pedro’s life began to become clear. That was more than a decade ago.

The writer of “Clemente!”Where a Nickel Costs a Dime,” “Postcards of El Barrio,” and “Smoking Lovely,” Perdomo says his Nuyorican city life roots kindled a deep, personal appreciation for storytelling and music.

“It was how we communicated. It was how we insulated and protected ourselves,” Perdomo said about growing up in Harlem.

“I always felt that there was a certain magic about living in Spanish Harlem, even though I knew that people were suffering from poverty and that communities were under siege,” Perdomo continued. “I could always hear a certain amount of laughter and song. I used to fall asleep with that flowing through my dream life.”

Writers like the celebrated Langston Hughes, another Harlem resident, made it okay to use the language the young Perdomo was hearing every day. “That was a revelation to me,” Perdomo said. The language he grew up with became an integral part of the way he approached poetry.

“The other part was that lives which otherwise went unnoticed or unexamined were now prime for celebration. It seems poets at times give those unexamined lives a voice, so that we’re able to see beyond the mythology,” he said.

Perdomo's parents influenced his work as well. Carmen kept journals and still does. “The act of writing is a big part of her life. She tells really good stories about the gilded age of the boogaloo era and about that time in her life,” Perdomo said. “Conversely, my father’s silences are the ones you try to fill in.”

A printer by trade, his father William Perdomo was there when brother Pedro was creating music, participating “from kind of a layman’s vantage point,” Willie Perdomo said.

Willie locked in on his father’s ability to listen to an old song and remember what he was doing when the tune came out. “The music could be resonant of a more youthful time. So it became an imagining for his own narrative,” Perdomo said.

His poems pose questions about Shorty, filling the gaps in an understanding of his life and ultimately his death.

How cool was I, Shorty asks, sharing his story with an unidentified young poet?

So cool

That I chased God like he was on the run.

So cool

That when Puente heard my speed, I made him bite his

Tongue. I’m saying – I made the Mambo King bleed.

Shorty’s monologues evolve into a testimony of sorts, a virtual call-and-response with the love of his life, a singer named Rose, a formidable and fiery siren who speaks in a series of Dear Shorty letters and has her own recollection of events. It’s the use of the classic muse trope, Perdomo said.

“One of the things I found when poets wrote about a kind of specific love, more often than not that specific singular love did not respond. So this was a great opportunity to have that trope in response,” Perdomo explained.

“I just felt that beyond Shorty’s musicianship, his apprenticeships and his relationships, that there should have been also a part of his heart that was engaged in an attempt of love outside the music.” He imagined Rose in terms of her voice and in the composite image of Billie Holliday and others.

Finding his own writer’s voice actually meant finding several voices now at his disposal, Perdomo said.

“That was the fun part,” he said. “I could utilize more than one voice to start telling fragments of a story. I found that the distinction between the voices was stylistic. One might be lyrical, the other performative, one extensive, the other somewhat minimal. “The key is to understand that one’s voice is an accumulation of those jam session voices.”

What advice would he give to aspiring young writers? Perdomo’s answer evokes more images of the risks of falling off the ledge.

“To get the hours of practice in,” Perdomo said. “To understand the role of tripping and getting back up as it relates to trying to find your voice.”

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