For more than four decades, New Yorkers have been lining up down the block to get into the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The East Village institution is a hot spot for poetry and spoken word primarily by and for the Black and Latinx communities.
But these days, Friday nights on the block are pretty desolate. When COVID-19 hit in mid-March, the Cafe, which regularly hosts poetry slams, open mics, Latin Jazz and Hip-Hop concerts, theatrical performances, educational programs, and visual art exhibits, had to shut its East Third Street doors and pivot to online-only programming for the first time. The unprecedented closure has majorly affected the cultural gem, but despite that, its performers are anything but silent. Through all of this, the Cafe has found that moving online has offered even more intersectionality than ever before, its Executive Director Daniel Gallant says.
"The start of the shutdown was terrifying," he told us. "When the city ordered all NYC performance spaces to shutter in March, we moved operations offsite, cancelled all in-person events, and refunded tens of thousands of dollars in advance ticket sales and rental fees. We had always focused on live events, so it was an incredibly challenging transition."
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Like many cultural institutions, the Cafe finds itself at a substantial loss because of the shutdown. Gallant said that at least 60 percent of its revenue for the year will be lost if no emergency grants come through.
"It's been tough going," he said.
For all of its "Virtual Mic" challenges, poetry workshops, spoken word performances, and panels of authors, theater artists and musicians, the Cafe uses Zoom, which has been effective, but there are some issues it has faced by using it. Party crashers sometimes try to interrupt the events, and its staff has to put in a lot of effort to deter those interruptions. It's also hard for performers, who are used to in-person performances, to gauge audience response.
"Spoken word relies on energy from live audiences, and feedback loops between artists and audience; emojis in a chat box don’t carry the same primal energy and positive reinforcement as applause, snaps and cheers," Gallant said.
All of its online events are free, but it relies on the generosity of spectators and supporters in order to provide them. Right now, the Cafe takes donations to nuyorican.org/contribute (or via CashApp, to $NuyoricanPoetsCafe).
But like true New Yorkers, its team has found a way to make lemonade out of a bunch of lemons. Because it's online, the Cafe has reached viewers around the world and featured voices from at least 27 states and from overseas. It has essentially grown its community and given a voice to even more people.
Allen Ginsberg once called it the "most integrated place on the planet," and it has only grown more so, according to Gallant.
"For the many Latinx and Black artists in our community who have been particularly hard-hit by COVID and the shutdown, this is an important time to share positive energy, empathy, encouragement and creative inspiration, as well as strategies for facing the challenges presented by the pandemic."
The Cafe has also worked to give a space for these artists' voices while off-site by supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Along with PEN America, Harlem Writers Guild, the Authors Guild and other literary organizations, it petitioned the mayor and City Council to significantly increase public funding for Black and Brown writers and readers. In fact, the poets who perform in its online open mics are often right from the front lines of Black Lives Matter protests.
"Why is NYC spending 30 times more tax dollars on law enforcement programs that disproportionately target Black communities then on arts and culture?" Gallant asked. "A city that depends on the arts for its identity and its tax dollars should not be using so many of those tax dollars to repress and endanger communities of color, while simultaneously underfunding the organizations that serve them."
By having a healthy and diverse literary ecosystem, social justice and equality are reaffirmed and strengthened, he added.
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe has been around since 1973, when poet Miguel Algarin, along with other writers and musicians of color started it up in his living room as a place to share their work, which wasn't accepted by mainstream publishing houses, or the academic and entertainment industries. (The word "Nuyorican" is a mixture of "New York Puerto Rican" and "Neo-Rican" that became its own movement.) Nuyorican writers spoke about discrimination they faced, poor living conditions, and general marginalization of their community but also how they resisted these things.
The Cafe hopes to uphold these voices, Gallant said.
"Now more than ever, black and brown voices should be amplified by cultural organizations," Gallant said. "Now more than ever, arts entities should be celebrating and championing immigrant artists and LGBTQIA artists. And now more than ever, policymakers and political leaders need to be reminded that artists and the organizations that serve them are the lifeblood of this country, of this state and of this city. There can be no civil society without vibrant arts and culture, no freedom without free public discourse."
Gallant, who has been executive director since 2008, is looking forward to when the Cafe can welcome people back inside, but for now, his team is hoping to hold performances in city parks and planning a block party with live performances near the Cafe like it has done in years past, depending on city approval.
Follow the Nuyorican Poets Cafe at @nuyoricanpoetscafe for more.
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