Willie Perdomo,
Where a Nickel Costs a Dime
(W.W. Norton & Co., 1996)

For awhile there in the early to mid-'90s, the whole "street poet" thing was really hot. So trendy, in fact, that being from "the street" in New York became a sort of stereotype: angry, young, generally male, with a dirty edge and an in-your-face grit, probably a minority.

It was almost on par with the Harlem Renaissance in the early 1900s -- a parallel made stronger by the fact that most of the biggest proponents of this kind of art form were Wall Street yuppies who would drive in to spoken-word gigs in their SUVs and BMWs to praise the struggling poets, only to drive back off into their manicured urban lives shortly thereafter.

What these yuppie brokers missed wasn't the performance of the work. They bought into the hype and the semantics and the show of it all. What they missed was the underlying theme that their nice apartment on 42nd Street couldn't provide them. They were missing a frame of reference.

Willie Perdomo performs. Bearing witness to his life in East Harlem, caught in a body that his friends can't tell whether he's black or Puerto Rican (he's Puerto Rican), the CD that accompanies this volume shines with a voice as angry as the next -- and as disillusioned.

It's trendy all right. Perdomo fits the bill perfectly -- poor, minority, filled with rage and giving it an outlet that's jumbled with tiny snapshots of life where no fashion photographer would go. The difference is that Perdomo, while still retaining that element of performer, capitalizing on the things he witnesses and observes every day in the 'hood (his words, not mine), does it well.

He manages to retain the language heard around him, but executes the images with clarity. He brings up the big issues, the universal, by showing the microcosm in detail.

This is what poetry's about. Forget what your high school English teacher told you -- sonnets by dead white men aren't the only valid words.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]

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