michael meyer's nuyorican slam album

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From Michael Meyer....March 27, 2007

E.B. White, in 1948, wrote: "A poem compresses much in a small space and adds mus, thus heightening  its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines." When I came to New York I was looking for that island of compressed life driven by its internal engine: and I had a very specific image in my mind of what I was looking for. I enrolled at NYU without understanding that cities change, mutate, and shift, New York doubly so. Neighborhoods are not neighborhoods are not neighborhoods forever. Coming from a small town, I did not know that. What I was looking for was invisible, gone. 

A couple of weeks into my first semester at NYU, a friend of mine, a student in Tisch's experimental theater program, suggested we head over to the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe to see a poetry slam. I'd never heard of slam. Not once. At Auburn Middle School, Mr. Berry, my eighth grade English teacher, taught me about the poetry of the beats and hippies. The unit culminated in a "Poetry Night" at which small groups of students make "coffee houses" and create a one night East Village escapade; a very tame East Village escapade. When I recited my memorized poems I wore a brown suede anorak and leggings with fringes. It was a sweet night rife with sentiment, but I'm not sure that any of the students there would have tied that unit of poetry or that night of recitation with any sort of current poetry practice. We did not talk about slam. We did not talk about hip hop. What we talked about was history. So when Jaimie made the suggestion, she had to show me "Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe" to orient me. From the first poem I read, I was hooked; and I still had no idea what slam was really all about. 

We went on a good night. I don't remember all of the slammers that graced the stage that night, but I remember for sure that Stephen Colman was one. I remember this, because every time I went back I hoped I'd get to hear Stephen again. And I remember that when I left that night the one thing running through my head was, I'm coming back next week. I did return the following week and for most Fridays for the next two years. I even starting showing up on Wednesday nights for the open slams and on Saturday nights for Rocky Presents. This was a kernel of the New York that I had been seeking but not found. This was what I had come to New York for: an intensity of energy. A down at the heels I'm gonna yell to whoever will listen kind of energy. And slam was fun and entertaining to boot. 

Here was a place with energy, character and characters. And the light was nice. What more could a young, new to New York photographer ask for? Every time I went to the Nuyo, I had a camera. I never read there (much to the benefit of all) but I photographed most of the poets who did between 1998 and 2001. Some I would photograph many times, some only once. Some went on to fame and fortune while others quietly slipped away. This was a scene that seemed to be coming into its moment, and I wanted to be there to record it. 

When I made these photographs, I was a student. I was experimenting and playing with documenting a space and its various occupants, as well as making the viewer feel like they could smell the cigarette smoke, the crush of warm bodies and the piercing of the spotlight onto the stage. I could never show the words and aural sensations--the best I could do was to hint at that emotion and energy flowing from the stage. What I could show were the physical manifestation of the slams: the characters and the details of the Nuyorican and its slams. I could show Mum da Schemer's bomber jacket and carved walking stick. I could show the curl of smoke around Keith Roach's head or his sunglasses against the spotlight or the beer bottle inevitably dangling from his hand as he moved the mic stand this side or that. I could show the Twin Poets seeming to meld into a single figure. I could show Pablo Rosenbluth getting a little crazy. I could show Jennifer Murphey's pant cuffs askew on her boots. I could show the different faces of Sarah Jones. The physical forms of the Cafe and its poets I could show. As such, these are pictures that give a feel for the place, a feel for the performance, a hint of the energy, the feel of a slam, but not a whit of the poetry. For the poetry you have to listen to the poets. 

This is the Nuyorican at the turn of the century. If you want to know what slam is now, you have to go to the Nuyorican. In the same way that my reading "Aloud" didn't fully prepare me for what I was about to see, so too with my photographs. They're a document of a specific time and a specific place where a cast of characters spoke from the stage and listened from the audience. This isn't about slam, its about being at the Nuyorican. It's about me and the experiences I had and the sights I saw at the Nuyorican.