Bonafide Rojas versifies the city that nurtured his talent
BY SARAH K. WILLETS
“When the city sleeps, I watch it, I love it,” says writer, musician and Nuyorican poet Bonafide Rojas. And in his new book “When the City Sleeps,” he documents it, too, from the Grand Concourse in the Bronx to the Staten Island Ferry. (Photo: Jeanne Noonan, NYDN)
In honor of the book, Rojas will host a series of parties, all free and open to the public. The first of these was held on Tuesday night at Camaradas El Barrio in Harlem; the next will be in May.
Rojas calls the collection of poems “a thank you to the city that raised [him]”— but it’s no gushy ode in the style of, say, Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” “It’s a series of love letters and complaints,” he says. “It’s not all shiny.”
For his latest and second book, Rojas, 34, took inspiration from every borough, especially Manhattan and the Bronx, where he grew up in the Grand Concourse area, a once-Jewish enclave that is now almost entirely Hispanic. “I think the Bronx gets a very interesting rap in terms of what it is and where it’s from and the history of it, so one of my jobs is to reinvent its identity as a very magical place,” he says.
The former SLAM THIS! slam poetry champion also took cues from European poets who marvelled at places like Paris. When he started writing it five years ago, “When the City Sleeps” included such cities, but Rojas soon found that New York City provided more than enough material to fill the space between two covers.
“They would talk about how magical their city was and how around every little corner there were pockets of wonder and for me New York has that,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, Rojas describes his poetry as “very New York.” Although he’s full of jokes off-stage, Rojas says it’s a different story when he performs spoken word. “Poetry has always been the art form that I took the most seriously,” says Rojas, who began writing at 17. “If it’s full of sincerity and truth and honesty, people can relate to that. They may not understand it, but they’ll feel the emotion.”
In writing, he combines this reverence for the power of words, his slam poetry background and Puerto Rican heritage with a style called “poetry of witness,” in which authors document everything around them.
As a result, the book’s chapters loosely correspond to New York City’s boroughs: “Dreaming Nuyorican” for the Bronx, “New York State of Mind” for Manhattan, “Holler” for Brooklyn and “Cinderblock Love Letters” for Queens. The fifth chapter, “Notes on a City Than Can (Kill:Love) You,” covers several areas, including Staten Island. “The ferry is a very interesting experience,” says Rojas, though he does most of his own writing on the subwat.
When writing the book, Rojas asked for a little help from the poetry community. Acentos Foundation curator Richard Villar, slam poet and Urban Word NYC Director Michael Cirelli and SoundBites Poetry Festival producer Mahogany L. Browne all contributed introductions to the book, while novelist Charlie Vázquez helped him edit it.
Rojas immediately thought of those who contributed to his book when was recently asked to curate an event for El Museo del Barrio on the upper East Side, and decided to get them all together for an edition of the museum’s monthly Speak Up! event. Inspired by the group, he landed on the theme of strengthening communities through art, naming the event “The Word is Our Weapon,” a title he borrowed from a biography of Zapatista leader Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos.
“Every writer in the show, I have a huge amount of respect for in terms of their writing ability, in terms of their work ethic, in terms of what they do in their communities,” says Rojas, who also wanted to thank the poets for their support throughout his career. He’s known each of them for at least five years. Villar and Vázquez, among others, read at Tuesday’s party.
And although he finds publishing a book a feat worth celebrating, Rojas says the party-planning process has been a little strange. “It’s weird for me because I’m the publisher also, so I have to call everybody and ask them to come.”
But he’s already on to planning the next party and even his next book. Inspired by poet Pablo Neruda, Rojas has been working on a collection of 100 sonnets for the past year and a half which he hopes to release by the end of 2012. Maybe then he’ll get some sleep.