Rethinking Diaspora: The In Visible Corporeal Movements of Nuyorican Poetry

Urayoán Noel, In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014); 230 pages; ISBN 978-1609382445 (paperback)

• June 2016

Urayoán Noel’s In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam comes at a pivotal time that makes the crucial connection between the fields of black and Latino studies. Nuyoricans, or Puerto Ricans from New York and its surrounding areas, were a new generation of voices emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Noel reminds us of the echoes, parallels, and interconnections between Nuyorican poetry and the Black Arts movement; he posits that you cannot theorize the Black Arts movement and Nuyorican poetry separately. It is here that Noel makes an amazing contribution in retheorizing and reconceptualizing Nuyorican poetics at the crossroads between blackness and latinidad. Noel engages with Stuart Hall’s and Brent Hayes Edwards’s approaches to diaspora in order to “highlight how Nuyorican poets have developed a performance poetics, readable on and off the page, that rethinks the terms of visibility and representation” (xiv). Noel provides us with a literary history of Nuyorican poetry from its initiation in the 1960s through its Latinization and its place in  post-1990s slam poetry.

In this groundbreaking work, Noel’s main argument is that “performing a problematic visibility might in fact be an essential part of a poetics of Nuyorican visibility” (xiv). Nuyorican poetry not only is reflective of a diasporic experience but also is a performative embodiment that reimagines the poets’ relationship to and with diaspora. Noel highly theorizes this (in)visibility by offering his term encounterpolitics “to describe how Nuyorican poetry performances, mediated by humor, enact an alternative social body” (xxv). In his first chapter, Noel looks to the poetry and performance of Pedro Pietri, a pioneer of the Nuyorican poetry movement and activist for addressing the struggle of working-class Puerto Ricans in New York. For Noel, Pietri is a prime example for witnessing this embodied encounterpolitics and Noel offers an analysis that presents the body as a site of political and diasporic articulation. Although this kind of analysis would also warrant a deeper exploration of the role of death in Pietri’s work, Noel limits himself in this respect, meanwhile consistently pointing out that Pietri and contemporary poet Victor Hernández Cruz provide their audiences with a much wider perspective through the documentary-project style of their work (38). This, Noel suggests, provides a visibility that a different kind of embodied performance could not.

Chapter 2 focuses on the development of the street poetics of Miguel Algarín and its later influence on Miguel Piñero. Here, Noel theorizes Piñero’s performance and poetry as one that manifests an embodied “interzone”: “Piñero’s Lower East Side—an imaginative space that exceeds its physical coordinates and leads back to Piñero’s own body—emerges as an interzone . . . where life and death bleed into one” (51). For Noel, it is these politics of invisibility that take form in the embodied poetics of Nuyorican poets. While Noel’s argument is convincing, this analysis could also be extended to the role of life and death in Pietri’s poetics of the “interzone.”

Although it seems that the chronology of Nuyorican poetry would have had major visibility, chapter 3 seems to suggest that the invisibility of Nuyorican poetry was further proliferated by its Latinization. More specifically, throughout the late 1980s and much of the 1990s there was a discursive manifestation of “Latino” identity becoming more homogeneous in which much of the foundational Latino/a studies scholarship sought to connect the decolonial Puerto Rican and Chicano movements. Interestingly, this also led to the hypervisibility of Nuyoricans as they were finally being sporadically published in Puerto Rico. Noel engages with the political and psychoanalytic senses of this incorporation by complicating the place of literature through Nuyorican poetry and its partially unincorporable nature. For Noel, the interzone is also a contact zone where the body itself functions as a social space, which “by making visible the never fully incorporable . . . assumes the body as an always raced, colonized (and resistant) territory” (103). For this, Noel attempts to draw forth the incorporability of the Afro-Latino, or more specifically, Afro-Puerto Rican, diaspora body when he outlines Tato Laviera’s translingual, translocal, and transgenre embodied poetry. It is important to note that this is the first time in the study, beyond the introduction, that Noel brings in the voice of what one can call an Afro-Nuyorican. Prior to this, Noel does not focus on race within the formulation of Nuyorican identity. This is not to leave race out of the dialogue, but usually Nuyorican is restricted to a national Puerto Rican diaspora identity that does not engage with a racial dialogue. Still, in a developing “Latinization” of the Nuyorican movement, one must grapple with the unincorporability of blackness within that. Therefore, Tato Laviera must be a part of the dialogue for further contextualizing and analyzing invisibility within Nuyorican poetry. Specifically, for Noel, Tato Laviera’s poem “Barrio” reenacts an Afro-Latino vernacular connected to urban space.

In further following the invisible movements of Nuyorican poetry, Noel uses chapter 4 to demonstrate its counterpublics through the slam era post-1990s. Here he is in conversation with Nuyorican scholars such as Ed Morales, who mentions how the term Nuyorican became reduced to the Nuyorican Café and no longer held the same meaning of the history of a community. In its essence, Nuyorican poetry became a genre that encompassed hip-hop movements and oral tradition through spoken word. Willie Perdomo’s “Nigger-Reecan Blues,” like Laviera, reminds us of the complexities of situating a Nuyorican identity that is Puerto Rican but also racially black. Noel meticulously posits that Perdomo’s “Nigger-Reecan Blues” “performs identity as founded on an unresolved difference” (128). Here Noel brings us back to his main argument of the limits of being off and on the page—the invisibility of Nuyorican poetry even within the slam era. Yes, while Nuyorican may have been limited to a genre, per se, it does not mean that Nuyorican experiences were absent. There is an echo of the everyday reality, documentary-project-style poetry in the younger poets emerging from the 1990s and early 2000s. For Noel, these poets also echo the counterpolitical performance of the foundational Nuyorican poets while engaging in new challenging realities such as gentrification, globalization, and the commodification of identity. In addition, slam is counterpublic for its ability to challenge language purists and hence their erasure of diaspora (140). It is here that Noel’s research and main argument have come full circle—he has demonstrated the encounter politics of Nuyorican poetry as well as its trajectory through the times not as something that has been forgotten or from the past but as an Afro-diasporic cultural production that reinvents itself through time.

Noel concludes with the suggestion that “the printed page and the performing body might both be impossible sites for the full representation of the Puerto Rican subject” (xxxv). He offers a literary, performative, and embodied history of Nuyorican poetry that goes beyond the page. However, the effectiveness of this “pervading” may fall short in its delivery because it can easily exclude a general nonacademic audience who may very well be Nuyorican poetry fans. This particular audience may find this work inaccessible because of its highly theoretical jargon. Ultimately, Noel’s work contributes to the academic field of African diaspora theory and Puerto Rican literature. He reworks the ways we can think of the embodiment of diaspora, migration, and language. Furthermore, he tells a story that engages with text, and with the body as text, which transforms the way we may think and engage with diaspora—whether it be the Puerto Rican or the African or both.

 

Omaris Z. Zamora is a spoken-word poet and visiting assistant professor in the Africana Studies program at Lehigh University. She received her PhD in Iberian and Latin American languages and cultures from the University of Texas at Austin. Her research engages the theoretical formation of AfroLatina feminist epistemologies through an analysis of transnational Dominican women’s narratives.