Willie Perdomo: Wit, Grit and Eloquence

“What’s up, man?” That’s how celebrated Latino poet Willie Perdomo greeted a restless and uncertain audience in Kemper Auditorium last Friday night. From the start, Perdomo commanded attention. The crowd, comprised equally of earnest fans and students required to attend, listened raptly to Perdomo’s words. Perdomo read poems from two of his three published books, Smoking Lovely and Where a Nickel Costs a Dime, using short, casual anecdotes from his life to introduce each poem. His poetry combined prose, verse and rap into a roller coaster ride of wit, grit and eloquence that reflected the poet’s colorful and often harrowing experiences as a young man growing up in Spanish Harlem. His poems dealt with topics including street violence, poverty, family and religion. Death of friends due to street violence was a recurring theme in Perdomo’s poems. One line succinctly summed up what it was like to live in such an environment: “One night I might die on the same ground I spit on.” Perdomo’s poetry was funny, tragic, thought-provoking and rhythmic. At times, Perdomo’s delivery seemed to take on its own beat, as his voice rose and fell, hurried and slowed in response to the action on the page. Despite tackling some heavy themes, Perdomo did not seem to take himself too seriously. At one point, while reading a hilarious imitation of two “homeboys” discussing Jesus on the train, Perdomo had to stop reading because he was laughing too hard. Perdomo’s poems were peppered with slang, Spanish and “Spanglish,” which added color to the illustrations of his culture. However, occasionally, non Spanish-speakers felt a little lost, as if they were missing out on a lot of the meaning and humor in Perdomo’s poems. “I don’t take Spanish, so it was kind of hard to understand and relate to the parts where he was speaking straight Spanish,” said Rona Choo ’11. Raya Stantcheva ’10 said, “I loved it. The way he talked and the way he mixed Spanish and English… I felt like I could throw myself into the culture he was describing.” Following the reading, Perdomo conducted a question-and-answer session with the audience. Here, even more than during the reading, his charisma, humor and charm showed through. During the session, Perdomo joked, “I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think it’s, like, a sexy, romantic way to not write.” In reality, however, Perdomo cited listening to music as his primary writer’s block cure. He went on to explain the origins of his informal, hip-hop writing style. “The poets that I gravitate to are the ones that make their own language,” he said. He also explained why he doesn’t write more structured forms of poetry like sonnets. “I don’t like any kind of straitjacket. I get claustrophobic. The way I write doesn’t lend itself to that kind of formulaic stuff,” he said. Though Perdomo used plenty of profanity in both his poems and his speech, he also made it clear that family and community are very important to him. He read and spoke about his mother, making a point of saying she was always supportive of his decision to be a writer. He also said he works to find time to give back to his community by teaching kids in New York City to write at a non-profit organization called Urban Word. Perdomo wrote and published his first children’s book, Visiting Langston in 2002, and his new children’s book Clemente! is forthcoming in 2010. Perdomo’s reading was a huge success. He enchanted the audence with the exhuberance of his poetry and reading style. Students and teachers alike enjoyed the event. “It was really cool, interesting and invigorating,” said Khadija Owens ’11. Flavia Vidal, Instructor in English, said, “He energized the room. Nobody wanted to leave.”