Welcome to Nuyo

They say when I’m older, I should worry about finding a husband

I hope I don’t forget, ‘cuz apparently, my memory cannot be trusted

They say Eve was created for Adam

Though, probably ‘cause Adam didn’t know who to be without Eve,

So…
I’m calling BS.

 

It’s one thing, I think, to have your lines written in your mind. It’s another to have the words written on your heart.

So I couldn’t help it. I recited my pieces, these small poems I’d reread and rewritten time and again, into the small void in my head that whispered I’d screw up my performance later. No, I was done feeding the monster what it wanted.

In just a half hour I’d be performing at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, aka Nuyo. It was one of, if not the, biggest poetry places in New York. Brought up in 1973, all the greatest names in spoken word had performed there. My own dad included, in fact. He was even a featured artist there, years ago- my whole family had filled up the seats. Just like they’d be doing for me tonight. Not to mention the legend himself: Reg E Gaines.

Not many people know him, not unless you’re in the poetry game. But he used to perform at the Nuyorican years ago, written tons of popular plays, and been nominated for a Tony and Grammy. I’d been working with him for the past five weeks to incorporate more skills into my writing. He’d slowly become a mentor of sorts, one I could trust. Plus, my dad had been a huge fan of his for years and seen him perform, even modeled his own writing after the man. He was counting on me to be great in front of Reg. No pressure, right?

Six of us, including Reg, were sitting in the empty Nuyorican Cafe. Reg was giving us tips on how to perform, but I couldn’t focus. My leg was bouncing and why was it so damn cold? So I only partially listened. The other half of my mind was reciting my poems. Again. At least, until it was revealed that I was only fifteen.

“Only 15? I thought you were older,” comments of disbelief and- approval, maybe- bounced around the room.

“She’s only fifteen… now how do you think that’ll affect how the audience sees her?” Reg looked at me, but I could only shrug. I didn’t know.

“She’ll be loved and forgiven for that,” a deep voice across the aisle spoke up. It was a tall, dark man. I’d never seen him before, but something about him just gave off the feeling of a writer, almost like a small halo of pensiveness. I’d never thought about it before, but he was right: if I wrote something amazing it was made even more astonishing because “you’re only fifteen!” and if I messed up, it was okay, don’t worry, because “you’re only fifteen.” So it really wasn’t important how well I performed or if I didn’t even have anything memorized- no matter what happened, I was going to be okay.

~     ~ ~

The clock read 7:00pm. It was finally time.

People began filling in the small space, from family to friends, even those family members that hadn’t seen me in years but could apparently still remember holding me “as an itty-bitty baby.” You know the type. They all told me how proud they were that I was performing at Nuyo and that they couldn’t wait to hear me, but I despite all that, I was still too nervous to let go of what the man had said before: I was young, I was gonna be okay. Still being a kid would cushion my fall.

Then I realized he was wrong.

The thing is, it didn’t matter who I was. It didn’t matter that I was a fifteen year old latina girl, that I loved reading more than I sometimes loved people, that I think ‘90s rap is better than today’s pop. It didn’t even matter that I’d spent hours perfecting these four poems in my hand, each covered in pen marks and smudged ink and shaking with my nerves. All that and more was taken away, forgotten, simply erased by the mic. On stage, you had to learn to let your poetry speak for you, let the mind of the audience wander on your words.

The room went quiet. Reg introduced me. I walked up to the mic, heart drumming in my ears.

Isn’t it funny to think that all this, our sentences, our song lyrics, our entire language, is just twenty-six letters? The same twenty-six Shakespeare had, the same twenty-six as Emily Dickinson, the same as each person that’d ever walked in or out of Nuyo. Those twenty-six letters had spun up words of encouragement, of faith, of I-love-yous and it’s-gonna-be-okay.

And yet, words are not always peaceful. There are words of hate, of bigotry, of I’m-right-you’re-wrong, of you’re-not-smart-enough-to-understand, of she-was-asking-for-it. There are even words of silence, of sit-down-and-shut-up, of your-opinion-doesn’t-matter, of you’re-not-smart-enough-to-understand. Which made it up to us, as people, to decide how we wanted to use our words. Did we want to waste them by turning them into weapons? Or waste them by not sharing their beauty with the world?

All this spun through my head in the split second before I started talking. It was too late now to change anything I’d written, but I didn’t regret writing it. So I just let the words take form and carry away the minds of the audience.

 

And sure, I’m fifteen, don’t even have a license,

Running over potholes

Lord knows

I don’t know how to drive,

Sitting behind the wheel with some smoke in my eyes

So no- my name is in no history book

But you’ll be damned if you think it won’t get there.

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