Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Anna J. Witiuk, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Willie Perdomo about his book The Esssential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon (Penguin), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Poetry, for the 2014 NBCC awards.
Anne J. Witiuk: Your collection, The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon, is formed around the story of your uncle, whom you never met, Pedro Perdomo, a percussionist who recorded with Puerto Rican bandleader, Charlie Palmieri. You have mentioned that many of the men in your family played instruments. Why choose to write about a relative whom you never met? Was it more creatively freeing to expand on the story of a less concrete person?
Willie Perdomo: Yes. Developing the persona gave me massive latitude to find a voice, or more than one voice. I chose to write about my uncle because he occupied a lot of storytelling space in my mother’s life. Her moments of glory came with a soundtrack. My uncle, Pedro Perdomo, was her entry into the live music scene of a developing salsa and boogalaoo movement. My uncle gigged in clubs and showcases from East Harlem to the Bronx. My mother’s stories usually ended the same way. “Your uncle could’ve been one of the best.” That’s the moment in the story where I get to fill in the silences and spaces without necessarily revealing a family secret. This opened the playground gates to legend, mythology, and a recreation of my uncle’s memory.
AJW: Having performed your poetry for many years, specifically being a celebrated voice in the Lower East Side spoken word explosion in the 90s, is there a difference between your process in creating a poem for the stage versus for the page? Are these two venues separate in how you deliver a poem and how you want it received by its audience?
WP: This is a subject that frequently comes up in my writing life. There are definitely differences between reciting a poem out loud and writing a poem in private. The one that’s out loud is a public proposition, a “We” game, it automatically implies that you have an audience, community, a powerful relationship, like MCs our goal is to move the crowd: move them to sing, vote, protest, hell I’ve seen people ready to fight after a strong poem in performance; but it can be so powerful that a performance can dominate a poem. The one that’s written alone is a private relationship, an “I’, without an audience. But I’d bet that most poets that hang on tight to the written aspect of a poem as a more austere, more arcane practice, still read those very same poems aloud, in private. Whether it’s a personal essay, a letter to the President, an obituary, the writer, more often than not, reads it aloud to make sure it “sounds” right. No mystery there. The poems in my collection were written separate from their life out loud, though. I read very few of those poems in public. I count on the fact that someone is reading and experiencing this book and doing so without the compliment of my physical voice, which is yet another instrument that can’t be discounted. Shorty Bon Bon is about to die, time is critical, as it is in music. When you’re writing about the dead, when you’re talking with them, there has to be respect for that which has nothing to do with larger audiences.
AJW: I found the character Rose to be a very strong presence in the book. She always seems to know more about the course of Shorty’s life than he does. She is part mother, part lover, part drill instructor, who guides Shorty as he is reborn within his music. How did Rose materialize as a female character, especially in a predominantly male-led community?
WP: That was definitely one of my intentions, to make Rose strong—a woman born of strength. She refuses to be romanticized. Rose is not falling for what we used to call “that Gucci shit” whenever someone waxed poetic in an attempt to be convincing. The book is very much a dream, so Rose is not based on any one specific, real-life character. In my mind I had her as a composite of a legendary badass jazz and salsa singer. For instance, in jazz music you had Ella Fitzgerald, and you had Billie Holiday. Those were two totally different personas. Ella Fitzgerald sang about biscuits and appeared very safe, very wholesome. But Billie Holiday was singing about lynching, and her personal, heartbroken life. Salsa had the same dynamic, Celia Cruz was like Ella, and my wife likes to say that La Lupe was Madonna before Madonna. But beyond the character composite, who attempts to put us back together? If it’s not the music, is it love? If it’s not love, is it one’s country? If it’s not one’s island or country, is it death, ultimately? Where are the love poems written by the singular love?
AJW: The relationship between music and death repeatedly comes up in this collection. Whether it’s Rose’s ability to conquer it:
“Our thing, mano,
Was definitely for the stay-alive, the sangre
Viva, the sacred & snake, too. When Rose’s
Throat hit six-figures, she bit razors in half,
Sucked on nightmares…”
Or the need for Shorty to let go of the dead to bring life to his music. Could you talk more about the relationship between music and death? How do you see each encountering the other within these poems?
WP: The entry point of mediation between Shorty, the Poet, and Rose is death and music. The last sides are the true jam session, the red light is about to fade, and the last person Shorty sees is Rose. So, in some ways, Rose may be more realistic about their relationship; she’s already arrived, she’s come face-to-face with her truth.
AJW: The sonorous and beat-backed language in your poems perfectly melds with the devoutly referenced “descarga” in your collection. “Descarga” means a musical jam session, but also, as you footnote at the end of the book, “the word descargar literally means ‘to unload’.” Where does the “unloading” of descarga music converge with the “unloading” of words in your poetry? Is poetry more inherently a jam session than is prose?
WP: The distinction between prose and poetry, the spoken and the written was definitely on my mind. I wanted to stay away from the sentence, or the sentence split into lines of verse, as a vehicle for a particular image or expression. Descarga appears in several ways. The first descarga is the jam session between three distinct voices. Shorty uses resemblance forms, mainly the sonnet. He’s a lyrical dude. The Poet is performative, almost breathless with his lines, but still a reflection of Shorty’s aggression and bravado. Rose’s epistles are jagged, fragmented, unsentimental. But they’re all trying to put pieces of the truth together before they’re discarded. Because I’m writing a collection using music as a controlling symbol, it has to have a distinct sound, a sonic range. The “unloading,” occurs when the Poet tries to write the same poem seven different times—that’s more about the writing process than anything else. The Poet tries and tries, and when he gets to his final take, he unloads whatever he has left. But he ends where Palmieri begins in the first section: pointing at Shorty and saying, “You,” which, hopefully, is also the reader who just finished a journey with these souls.
Willie Perdomo is the author of The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry;Smoking Lovely, winner of the PEN Beyond Margins Award; Where a Nickel Costs a Dime, a finalist for the Poetry Society of America Norma Farber First Book Award. He has been a recipient of a Woolrich Fellowship in Creative Writing at Columbia University and a two-time New York Foundation for the Arts Poetry Fellow. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, BOMB, Mandorla, andAfrican Voices. He is currently a member of the VONA/Voices faculty and is an Instructor in English at Phillips Exeter Academy.
Anna J. Witiuk (Online Editor-in-Chief and Poetry Editor) is a serial “anthropologist,” who writes because she needs to. One can find her work in publications such as SinkReview.org, The Minnetonka Review and 12th Street Journal. She is a native East Villager, but currently lives in Flatbush with two girl humans, two boy cats, and a large plant, that used to be watered by her grandma Anna, whom she’s never met.