Do You Speak Ubu Rican? On the Punk Muse of Rev. Pedro Pietri – A pietrospective

by Urayoán Noel

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Punk and poetry are kindred commotions. From the penthouses of their mind-rot highrises, the culture arbiters have tried to keep out commotions in check. To keep the discerning masses at bay. Instead we’re baying! They want us huddling at the Starbucks door, begging for Poetaster’s choice. But we’re not paying!! Fortunately, after decades-long deluges of agitation and ferment, we can lay confident claim to a puke-stained pantheon of “punk poets” (Ginsberg! Baraka! Mayakovsky! — or simply build your own list). To witlessly wit: punk is confrontational minimalism, a reduction of music to primal noise, throb, and rhythm. Similarly, you could consider “punk poetry” a reduction verbum. The “punk poem” tells you to go read The New Yorker¨ if you’re looking to be “sold” on the cozy promise of a “narrative arc,” that is, if you long for the urbane banality of a story told and into whose folds you may retreat. But if you’re malcontent enough to storm the sidelines of thought, to claim the world as it passes by in its ugly, urgent physicality, then you just might find solace in Dada, concrete poetry, the Beats, the New York School, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E, etc.( to list only a few obvious examples of “punk-friendly” poetry).

What does any of this have to do with the life, work, and legacy of founding Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri, who died in March, mid-flight, and at the age of 59, en route back to New York City from Tijuana, México, where he had undergone treatment for stomach cancer? Simple: it’s the “punk” Pedro Pietri I want to summon forth in these dissolutely convoluted paragraphs.

First the bio, then the feedback. Pedro Pietri was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1944 and moved to Harlem three years later. After serving in Vietnam (1965-67), he returned to New York City, where he launched into a long and illustrious career as poet / dramatist / performer / political & community activist & leader / spearhead / cacique of the Nuyorican literary & cultural movement. His efforts alongside Miguel Algarín, Miguel Piñero et. al., helped establish the now-legendary-Nuyorican Poets Café as one of NYC’s most important cultural institutions and as worldwide barometer of the alterna-hip and the community-edgy.

Pietri is best remembered as the author of “Puerto Rican Obituary,” the title poem of his first book (you guessed it!) Puerto Rican Obituary (Monthly Review Press, 1973). That poem immediately became the anthem / clarion call / rally cry for the Puerto Rican community in NYC and global elsewheres. The poem? A Pietriot missile aimed at the bunkers of the false-self and its time-lapsed, time-warped certainties. The activism? To revel in the shrapnel of self and find a home! By now “Puerto Rican Obituary” stands as a classic of US Latino and diasporic literatures; and though it has achieved legendary status, it still rings with the boom of a just-deployed counter-canon! It is an outraged existential evocation of the lives of Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Olga, and Manuel, five archetypal Puerto Ricans facing the struggles, sorrows and stunted dreams of life in the immigrant Barrio:

 

All died yesterday today

and will die again tomorrow

passing their bill collectors

on to the next of kin

All died

waiting for the garden of eden

to open again

under a new management

All died dreaming about america

waking them up in the middle of the night

screaming: Mira, Mira

your name is on the winning lottery ticket

for one hundred thousand dollars

All died

hating the grocery stores

that sold them make-believe steak

and bullet-proof rice and beans

All died waiting dreaming and hating

 

Here Pietri expands upon the defiant tone and urgent moral voice of Beat poems such as Ginsberg’s “America,” while discarding the imperial Whitmanesque “I” (or even the “I saw” refrain from “Howl”). Thus the omniscient, anonymous “man on the street” becomes a spokesperson for an entire community, for a larger experience with the solidity of solidarity. After all the polemics, Pietri still takes care to offer us a cure to his own diagnosis, cast in a visionary Romantic idiom: “If only they / had returned to the definition of the sun / after the first mental snowstorm / on the summer of their senses “

Pietri’s published oeuvre ranges from surrealistic short fiction to absurdist satires to concrete poetry, and includes such titles as Invisible Poetry (1979), Lost in the Museum of Natural History (1980), Traffic Violations (1983), The Masses are Asses (1984), Illusions of a Revolving Door: Plays (1992), and, most recently, Out of Order / Fuori servizio (2001), a dual language (English / Italian) edition of his famed “telephone booth poems.” Still, Obituary remains his best known work.

Why? Well, lots of reasons. For one, it’s perhaps his most accessible / pop-friendly work of poetry (it’s typically acerbic, unhinged, and tragicomic, but it still proudly traffics in hope, empathy, and affirmation; and it’s got that public, vatic voice that’s missing in most of his later work). Second? Timing. Puerto Rican Obituary came out at the tail end of the 60s countercultural upheaval, when the Puerto Rican community in New York (and beyond) was acquiring greater political visibility and was hungry for a “foundational text.” In the spirit of Ginsberg (an obvious influence, though you could also say Ted Joans’ Black Pow-Wow), Pietri manages oracular and rhetorical flow without sacrificing documentary grit and rhapsodic flight: an obituary recast in angry empathy as a cubist snapshot of community and self.

Alongside Pietri-the-Public-Poet there’s Pietri- the-Love-Loss-Lust-Chronicler. Witness the lovely “Hangover” poems from Traffic Violations. Matching Bukowski in their wry, prosaic deadpan, these poems ooze their own moonshine brand of dark, hard-earned wisdom: “When you get very drunk/ You have the gift to fool/ The dead into living again” (“February Hangover”). Then there’s Pietri the experimentalist, whose brain crevices’ most cavernous recesses should not be overlooked. Witness the poem “Prologue for Ode to Road Runner” (1978), featured in Richard Kostelanetz’s anthology Text-Sound Texts (1980) and Algarín and Holman’s Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café (1994). It is composed of a single phrase (“A downtown train”) randomly recombinated and reconstructed ad nauseam. The effect (picking up on wordplays and double entendres) is funny and/or annoying, a brilliant defacement of our readerly temperament:

 

train A town down

down A train town

A downtown train

A train downtown

 

And, that’s just the tip of the Pietrian tonguetwist. Then there’s the (post-?)apocalyptic sunbathers looking for their history in the locked-down museum of self. Then there’s the loose joints of a visionary certitude, lost and reclaimed in vacant lots, next to the beaches where brainwaves pound against the celluloid coast. The sound of one hand lapping thunder! The spraypainting of boulevards with minimalist griot graffiti! The hubris of bile– homegrown not store-bought– though sometimes readymade. There’s a gadfly in my hegemonade! A barfly in my ParanoidMalNormInterroRgatorMelicAid! Sometimes swearing. Rarely snoring. Soaring thru the sore!

Ah, and let’s not forget the plays; the role-plays, the \work{Yo}-plays. When at his best as a satirist, Pietri spews Quevedian bile and hurls Rabelaisian cherry bombs atop a Swiftian soapbox. Seriously, though, when it comes to sheer moral outrage disguised as absurdism, Pietri is as accomplished, entertaining, and unflinching as Jarry or Ionesco. Want proof? Well, take note of the stark zero-archetypes of Jesus Is Leaving (1973), the absurdist ‘hood-wink’ social realism of The Livingroom (1975), the scurrilous mind-jot brain-fuck of A Play for the Page and Not the Stage (1979).

He also served proudly and performatively as an ambassador for all things Puerto Nuyo Cosmo. I think I speak for many young Puerto Rican poets born and raised on the island when I say that Pietri was our bridge not just to Nuyorican literature but to New York as creative imaginary (as horizon-of-becoming) and to new ways of negotiating the lyrico-political furrows of the written/performed self. Pietri maintained relationships with many leading figures from de Generación del Setenta (the mostly left-leaning and politically informed 1970s generation of Puerto Rican poets). Pietri was published by the University of Puerto Rico (it is said that his Illusions of a Revolving Door was the first book by a Nuyorican author to be published in English on the island) so his books circulated widely (the promotion and distribution logistics of books in Puerto Rico are fascinating and complex in and of themselves and the subject of another essay/rant/diatribe).We didn’t understand everything about El Barrio or Loisaida, but we understood Pietri. He seemed to be saying: there was no “founding myth” of Puerto Rico, or, rather, we were all the myth because the myth was in the making. (Cut here to the magician showing you his stacked deck.) There was something in his irony, in his embrace, which was, I guess you could say, UNIVERSAL (though I wouldn’t say it ‘cuz that word is too politically scary). Something which took the Barrio to you by making you face up to your own mental ghettoes.

Many of Pietri’s best texts were experiments, and as such they inevitably courted failure. For Pietri, success and failure were, it seems, complementary jokers from the same ace-less deck. This has nothing to do with “failure” in the strict, judgmental sense (i.e. “bad literature”) — think of Lost in the Museum of Natural History, a bonafide masterpiece! It’s just that Pietri is one of those rare great contemporary writers (another? Burroughs) who challenged our notions of “successful, normative literature and art,” who dared to court failure, who summoned it (trading in polish for bile) and often came out winning. Or at least grinning. Unlike Burroughs, though, Pietri carried with him a Romantic voice that vouchsafed all experiments: fearless, therefore, for failure was merely a name for the start of something new.

The punk lesson? That the formal, polished realm of “Literature” does not exist as something divorced form life. The punk spirit? A series of decompositions punctuated with that beauteous, tragic question: “After all this chaos and despair, can we still love?” Pietri’s answer was, amazingly, “Yes!” In fact, he added, “Here love begins.”

Pietri’s voice is particularly important in this time when many Hispanic or Hispanophilic intellectuals and culture-makers in the U.S. have traded in their soapboxes for the cozy domesticity, the shared language of a media-friendly “Latino-ness”. Those of us who can’t quite relate to or are not interested in ML (Mainstream Latino-ness) feel boxed in to an “EITHER/OR” predicament: EITHER we push for more informed and radicalized (non-mainstream) forms of identity-organizing (we read Juan Flores) OR we worry less about identity and more about producing experimentalist texts which will resist mainstreamization we read Charles Bernstein). It seems to me there is something to be said for both of these aims and, in fact, one may very well be incomplete without the other}. Hence, \italic{la importancia de Pietri, the amped-up ampersand — &&&&&&!!!! — which lets us get beyond the EITHER / OR malaise.

Without some sort of dialogue with other formal worlds, other traditions, other modalities, poetry (art! people in general?) risks becoming myopic and insular; while “purely formal” poetry which circumvents the sociopolitical debates and intimate concerns of our time (or which reduces them as “ancillary-to-form”) risks becoming irrelevant, reactionary, or (worst of all?) boring. By now, meaning 2004 THE AGE OF EMBEDDENESS!!!), how many times have you read “language poetry” which is as boring, self-indulgent, and bourgeois as the tradition it was hellbent on overthrowing? How many times have you heard “slam poets” whose poetic/political diatribes are well-meaning and powerful but who sound as prefab and cliché as the mainstream culture they are valiantly trying to subvert (sort of like an inverted “Univisión”?)?

If you’re like me, your answer to both of these questions will be “Many!” For what both sides seem to miss is that there is nothing inherently “interesting” or “politically advantageous” about one type of poetry vs. another. Both Form and Community Identification are tools, to be used and/or discarded and/or (ideally?) recombinated (see Pietri as avant-gardist AND politik-agitator). The better you are at both, the more tools you have. Of course you can write great “political poetry” without relying on Shared-Identity-Formulations (e.g. through class — see Rodrigo Toscano) just as you can write challenging, complex, formally daring verse that speaks the truth about where you are, where/who you come from and what/who you represent (Victor Hernandez Cruz, Alurista, Mark Doty, Harryette Mullen, Marilyn Hacker, etc., etc — ). But to make it an EITHER/OR scenario is, as our buddy Kierkegaard would put it, SINDSSYG! (That’s “crazy” in Copenhagen — if you’re keeping score at home! Stale Danish, indeed!)

We could not exhume and extol the punk-muse of Pietri lore without foregrounding the performance aspect. You know the rap: Pietri as (the breaking of the) fashionplate. Pietri in basic black. As basic as the self. As the scar. Never reheated. Poisoned punchline. Oh, sure, he wasn’t the first: the violent absurd, the prosaic beauty, the psychotic asides, the deflationary irony, the humorous inversions — it was not all new (remember “Howl”?… “seeking visionary indian angels who were visionary indian angels”). But Pietri’s visionary grandstands were always tempered with punk phlegm and Dada bile. Plus, Pietri did Screamin’ Jay Hawkins one better: Forget the songs! Coffins as songs, songs as coffins! As the Puerto Rican poet Joserramón (Che) Melendes has suggested, Pietri’s body was, if not his ultimate poem, at least the ultimate template for his politics enacted. In this sense, the handing out condoms at readings, the El Puerto Rican Embassy passports, the Spanglish National Anthem (and, of course, the taunting and provoking and inspiring and soothing and awing) were jagged-blade metaphors: brilliant, and waiting to be literalized.

 

AND NOW: A SHAMELESS DIGRESSION

 

OK. Some shtick. Pajas. Viajes. Writing as throat-clearing. To pass the mic upon having disassembled it. Excuse me. Have you heard that one before? Good evening, everybody! Is this thing on? That’s my time! (Where is the sound of laughter uncanned?).

The so-called “Stand-Up Poetry” movement would do well to recognize Pedro Pietri as one of its Founding F****ing Fathers! (Though, of course, at its best, Pietri’s stand-up was so much more than that: as in “Don’t be ‘upstanding’! Just stand-up for yourself!”). His wasn’t mere performance art formalism (though you would be perfectly entertained were you to consume it simplistically as such). It was connected to the Puerto Rican experience, the Nuyorican experience, the NuyoCosmoRican experience (his term!). It was a utopian / dystopian promise we are bound to be bound by and deliver on. It was a dead-serious joke we were / are summoned to provide the punchline for. That joke you always slay me with!

Of course, the poetic goods sometimes got lost in the retórico-prophetic shuffle. For instance, Pietri’s anti-Navy-occupation poem (“Get the Fuck out of Vieques”) has some good lines and is well-meaning and dead-on politically, but a lot of it comes across as sloganeering and self-righteousness (far less subtle and profound than the lyrico-political agitator’s ethical demand that was at the core of “Puerto Rican Obituary”). What happens with the Vieques poem is the same thing that sometimes happens to Planet Newsalic-era Ginsberg. But all art engagé risks formlessness and banality, and such pieces should be read in the context of Pietri’s larger trajectory of psycho-politico-historico-chemico-(per)formico-textual exploration. In the words of poet/performer (www.brainlingo.com) Edwin Torres, whose work transacts with both sides — body as vision? — of the Pietrian peseta:

 

“Pedro’s liberty is what remains with me the most. This is the root of innovation to me, putting your questions into your work to open the possibility of unanswered questions. Pedro’s brilliance was in presenting a fertile vision within the focus of the people, his people, fellow Boricuas, fellow humanity. I don’t think he’d see his work as experimental because he himself was an innovation, doing what he lived. With the eyes and ears of a child when he needed to, risk was non-existent. There was never any failure because it was always Pedro, a real life-lesson for any artist or human being. It’s up to us to use that liberty to continue experimenting, innovating the question into the risk & rise of illumination.”

Like Jarry in Ubu-land, when we say “Pietri” what we mean is “Let irreverent humor be the bug that short circuits the logic-of the-world-as-given and allows something else to happen!” OR “Let there be visions in our prisons and frissons in our fracture!” AND “I hereby instate a systematic method of logical and political dismantling — NuyoCosmoRican style — so that I may have playful/powerful avant-garde dreams!” Pietri’s sales pitch? Something like this: Before FUBU there was UBU: an Ubu-Rican: for everyone, by no one. Or for no one and by everyone (same thing!). Take note, please. Repita after mí: “The punk muse mews, never failing to amuse with its maws in the maze of our mind’s Ay!” Pietri played that tune. Ahora tú. Learn to say it and sing.

 

See “The Punk Muse: The True Story of Protopathic Spiff Including the Lowdown on the Trouble-Making Five-Percent of America’s Youth” by Nick Tosches, in Fusion, 1970 (as quoted in Let it Blurt by Jim DeRogatis. New York: Broadway, 2000).