Broken English Dreams: The Selected Poetry of Pedro Pietri
I don’t write book reviews. Never did, until now. I’ll make an exception for el Reverendo Pedro Pietri. Ideally, Steve Cannon would have liked this review to be written by a Nuyorican. Didn’t happen, so Steve turned to the next best thing: me. Why me? First of all, I wrote my Master’s Thesis on the poetry of Pedro Pietri and Bob Kaufman. But before that undertaking, I was Pedro’s friend, first meeting him at the Life Café on Avenue B sometime around 1980. I also published a number of his poems in the pages of Long Shot, a literary and arts magazine I ran for 20 plus years. I have spoken at conferences and hosted events about Pedro, and with Pedro in New York, Chicago, and Hoboken.
Around 1995, Pedro wanted to publish the collected Telephone Booth Poems with Long Shot, but I thought he could do better publishing wise, being as we did not have great (as in adequate) distribution nor the resources to promote the book properly. Pedro didn’t really care, he knew he’d sell the books at readings and with Long Shot as his only partner and no other middleman, he also knew he’d make a bigger profit than with more established poetry publishers. But I was more concerned with his reputation and legacy. I wrote letters to Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights and John Martin offering compelling reasons why they had to publish Pedro Pietri’s Telephone Booth Poems, or if they didn’t want that, a Selected Poems. Why these two publishers? City Lights and Black Sparrow were the publishers of Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski respectively, two of my favorite writers. I grew up dreaming of having my verse published within the simple black and white Pocket Poets series or between the simple orange vellum covers of a Black Sparrow edition. So, I wrote letters explaining to Mr. Ferlinghetti and Mr. Martin how it was a win-win situation for them to publish the work of this major American poet – namely Pedro Pietri. Within weeks I received polite, personalized and maybe even heartfelt letters from both publishers explaining the economics of the publishing world (as if I didn’t know), and about how they were booked up literally for the next few years.
Let’s start with the obvious; Pedro Pietri: Selected Poetry should have been published while he was alive. With that said, I am delighted that City Lights finally saw the light, albeit a late light. Editors Juan Flores (who tragically passed before the publication date) and Pedro Lopez Adorno have done a masterful job of assembling Pietri’s poems. If this is one’s first real look at Pietri’s poems, then this book is a revelation. The hits are here: Puerto Rican Obituary, The Broken English Dream, January Hangover, To Get Drunk You Have to Drink, Telephone Booth Number 905 ½ (first published in Tribes), and El Spanglish National Anthem, to name a few. Putting together a 244 page selection of Pietri’s poetry is a difficult task indeed, because Pedro had so many friends, we all feel we own a piece of him. Myself included. I would have included the poems Get the Fuck Out of Vieques, Smokin’ Ocean, P.O.W., and Telephone Booth Numbers 679, 72237, and 847, all originally published in Long Shot. Here’s telephone booth number 72237:
Admittedly, this may not be one of Pietri’s greatest poetic triumphs, but the sheer exuberance and irreverence speaks to an essential quality of his work. I fully understand the editors’ decision not to include In Defense of Depression, For Jack Micheline, and Toilets Are For Making Love, because perhaps they are not among his best work.
However, I’d like to explain the connection between Smokin’ Ocean and For Jack Micheline because it illustrates what Pietri prioritized aesthetically. In 1996 we did an issue of Long Shot with a special section devoted to Jazz which was edited by Zoe Anglesey. Pedro gave us Smokin’ Ocean which he insisted was a jazz poem even though we all new it wasn’t. But it was a kick-ass rock and roll poem, even though we put it in the jazz section. Here’s the first four stanzas:
This poem goes on for 64 more verses or stanzas, whatever you want to call them. The first time I heard it was in Pedro’s apartment on 43rd Street. The poet Jack Micheline who had helped me enormously on the Bob Kaufman section of my Master’s thesis was in town. Jack Micheline was a poet who originally came from the Bronx, but made a name for himself in San Francisco. He was somewhat associated with the Beat Poets and with Charles Bukowski, but he was most well known as a self proclaimed “street poet.” Pedro had to meet him. So it was on a humid August day that Pedro, Jack Micheline. Nancy Mercado and me went to Pedro’s apartment with a big gallon jug of red wine. Needless to say, we finished it off. Pedro told us he had this new poem he was working on, which was written in a spiral notebook. He proceeded to read all 68 verses of Smokin’ Ocean. It was as if he was in trance, he swayed to and fro, dripping with sweat, spitting the words out in his drunken baritone. Nancy and I watched entranced, Jack Micheline fidgeted distractedly. When he was done, Nancy and I were speechless, we had just witnessed the manifestation of genius. Jack Micheline said something to the effect of “nice poem. Now listen to this” and then proceeded to recite a poem about the dead that he new by heart and had recited about a 100 times. I was so mad at Micheline, his ego would not allow a potential competitor even a moment of glory. All Pedro wanted that afternoon was to impress Jack Micheline; all he did that afternoon was convince Nancy Mercado and me that he was America’s greatest living poet.
I would have liked to have seen one of my favorites from Puerto Rican Obituary, The Last Game of the World Series, as well as After the 21st Drink, Uptown Train, and some of the more crazy and joyous Telephone Booth Poems included in the selection. But enough about the omissions, let’s look at what is in Selected Poems. Basically, the editors give us a generous helping of Pietri’s poems at different stages in his career. There are also some surprises, and these are what delighted me. The final third of the book, from page 153 on, contains poems that casual readers may not be familiar with. My favorites in the last part include The Party Continues, After the 11th Drink, El Spanglish National Anthem (of course), and El Puerto Rican Embassy/Manifesto. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I that I could not finish reading the final piece in the book, the rather prosaic Lost In The Museum of Natural History, but then again I already knew that Pietri is a better poet than a prose stylist.
Pietri’s influences: Jorge Brandon, Garcia Lorca, Langston Hughes, Frankie Lymon, Bob Kaufman, Ted Jones, Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Allen Ginsberg and Tuli Kupferberg are evident throughout the book. Pietri’s distinct musicality is also seen (hopefully heard) though showing this does not seem a priority of the book. An objective book review of Selective Poetry is difficult to pull off, because Pedro Pietri is a poet whom you either love, or don’t get at all. Like certain rock stars (Prince, Bruce), you have to see him perform to understand the full magnitude of his talent. But we can’t do that, so this book will have to do. And it does fine. Also this book does not, and really cannot address the cultural and social importance of Pedro Pietri to the Puerto Rican Diaspora and the whole Nuyorican movement. For that you’ll have to look into Urayoan Noel’s landmark study of Nuyorican Literature, Invisible Movement (University of Iowa Press) which is worth reading in its own right.
Pedro Pietri: Selected Poetry is an essential addition to the canon of American and Latino Literature. It is more than worth the price (18.95). I would like to see City Lights aggressively promote this important collection of poems, which should be on the bookshelves of each and every student, teacher, and lover of contemporary poetry. Pour yourself a glass of red wine, have yourself a smoke, open to any poem in the collection. You will enjoy.