SPOTLIGHT ON: Poet Jean-Sebastien Surena performs at a Nuyorican Poets Café Monday Night Slam hosted at the Bowery Poetry Club. PHOTO/ Cris Seda Chabrier

MANHATTAN — The energy was vibrant for a Monday night as 15 poets read, acted and shouted their verses to a captivated audience at the Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan’s East Village. Three judges ranked the performers and declared a winner, inviting them to move on to the next level of competition.

The weekly Monday Night Poetry Slam was organized by the Nuyorican Poets Café as part of a mission to continue its famed spoken word poetry competitions while its iconic Lower East Side club is closed for a $24 million, three-year renovation.

A scan of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe’s programming calendar since its October 2023 closure reveals a packed schedule, with events at multiple offsite locations almost every night.

In addition to the weekly Monday night slams at the Bowery Poetry Club, there’s a monthly “Final Friday Slam,” which is hosted the last Friday of the month at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater at 47th street between Eighth and Ninth avenues. The winners of the Monday night slams go on to compete in the “Final Friday Slam,” the winner of which gets a $100 prize, and the chance to win $1000 at the Nuyorican’s end-of-year Grand Slam

There’s also “Open Mic Wednesdays,” during which the Nuyorican Poets Café teams up with the Losaida Center at 710 East 9th St. between avenues C and D. The Loisaida Center also hosts the Nuyorican’s monthly Womxns Orator Wednesday Open Mic one Wednesday a month. 

And on Thursday nights, the Nuyorican Poets Café organizes an virtual open mic over Zoom.

Staying in the Flow 

Poet Jean-Sebastien Surena’s first time participating in one of the Nuyorican Poets Café slams took place at an alternative venue, during a Monday Night Slam at the Bowery Center in December 2023.

Unlike other poets, he stood still on stage underneath the lights, and only moved his arms.

“I can’t write vivid imagery but I can paint a picture of a bell that rings. It rings for corpses found beneath rubble, it rings for the children whose ears will forever ring with the whistle of bombs bursting in the air. It rings for freedom,” said Surena, his voice deep and melodic.

 “It rings for freedom until we are all free.”

The audience remained quiet for a moment after Surena finished — then they cheered, clapped and banged on tables while the judges gave him a perfect score. He came in second place that night.  

Surena, who is Haitian, said the experience of delivering his spoken-word performance — inspired by current events in Gaza — was everything he hoped for, in keeping with the Nuyorican Poets Café’s reputation as a hub for centering minority voices.

 “No one I’ve ever talked to has gone to the Nuyoricans and felt like they weren’t welcome — whether they’re poet or not,” Surena said. “It was a really serendipitous feeling to see all these pieces come together, to see all these people come together and get this sense that, ‘okay, maybe I do belong’.”

Deep Roots

Organizers say keeping the Nuyorican Poetry Café events going offsite during renovations is a perfect fit for the club’s improvisational spirit. 

Jasmine Rosario, better known as J Rose, motivates poets and audiences every Monday at the Nuyorican Poets Café Monday Night Slams at the Bowery Poetry Club.

The poet and activist learned about spoken-word poetry from the 2001 film Piñero, about the life of Miguel Piñero, co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café. Years later, when it came time to share her poetry, Rosario went straight to an open mic at the Nuyorican Poets Café. 

“I was reading very fast, stuttering, and it was awful. But I loved it. Even though I was terrified, it felt right,” Rosario said, adding that eight years later, she’s now a professional hostess for the café, a process that she felt “came full circle.”

Founded in 1973 by Puerto Rican poet Miguel Algarín, with the help of a dozen poets, playwrights and musicians, the Nuyorican Poets Café fostered a spoken word movement for artists who were discriminated against and excluded from institutional spaces, according to the café’s former co-director, Bob Holman.

SPEAK UP: Poet Bob Holman, former director of the Nuyorican Poets Café from 1988 to 1996 and founder of the Bowery Poetry Club in 2002. PHOTO/Cris Seda Chabrier

“[The founders would say] ‘Okay, you’re a poet? Well come on in.’ It started with Puerto Ricans, but they invited other people because the Lower East Side was a mixed neighborhood. It became a neighborhood event,” said Holman, who was co-director of the Nuyorican Poets Café in the 1980s and 1990s before opening the Bowery Poetry Club in 2002.

This genre became “the stepchild of the poetry world” in that it is largely oral rather than literary, said Holman, who brought the spoken word poetry performance style to New York from Chicago. 

NEW ERA: The current director of the Nuyorican Poets Café, Caridad de la Luz. PHOTO/Cris Seda Chabrier.

The Nuyorican Poets Café’s new director, Caridad de la Luz — better known as La Bruja — said the decision to undergo this construction project will help create a place to boost the careers of new writers, like the Nuyorican Poets Café of yesteryear helped her establish her career in 1996. 

“We’re bringing unknown poets to big stages, because I lived that life. It’s almost like a shortcut, like what the founders did for me, but on a larger, more organized scale,” de la Luz said, calling the current phase of the café work “Nuyoricanstruction.” 

De la Luz said that, over time, the Nuyorican Poets Café had become more of a venue for activities than a movement. Now she thinks it’s time to renovate the café and bring it back to its roots.

“It was treated as a venue and only a venue. I’m trying to create a cultural institution,” de la Luz said. “there’s things that never existed before and there’s things that did exist that we just amplified and made better. We honored old traditions and created new bonds.”