A King Among Poets, Now Looking for Work

The poems of Jesus “Papoleto” Melendez have a bopping rhythm, where words cascade down the page and – when he recites them – swirl around the room, through the window and out onto the streets of El Barrio. Among the founders of the Nuyorican Poetry movement, his poems are carefully crafted reflections on urban life, with equal doses of humor, anger, love and absurdity.

Side Street

David Gonzalez reports from corners of the city in words and pictures.

He learned just how absurd in recent months, when his poems were translated into Spanish for “Hey Yo! Yo Soy!” a collection stretching back 40 years.

“We are so used to our poverty, to the conditions we suffer through,” Papoleto said. “You’re accustomed to seeing homelessness in your neighborhood. We talk casually about ghetto things. But when you read it in Spanish, it blows your mind. How can a people live like this?”

This is not a rhetorical question. He is three months behind on his $662 rent for his tiny one-bedroom apartment on East 111th Street – the same narrow warren where he spent the first 14 years of his life. Unemployment benefits he had thought would be extended through March – when several events related to his book would be held — instead ended in December.  He is looking for work, but opportunities for a poet are few.

On a bookcase crammed with dog-eared tomes, rests a letter rejecting him for food stamps.  He awaits a decision about welfare. At 62 years of age, a man who has been a poet, a prophet and king – Gaspar, in the neighborhood’s Three Kings Day Parade – now might end up being a pauper.

“The weeks of unemployment I thought I had left were enough to keep me afloat, even while teetering on the edge of catastrophe,” he said. “Now, I’m in the black hole.”

He had cobbled a living from workshops and recitals and by teaching local classes until 2011, when a program that employed him lost funding.  Colleges and classrooms have increasingly turned to younger “spoken word” artists who have laid claim to the Nuyorican tradition, but not his discipline. Nor his life experience.

“There is a lot of vanity, where they’ve co-opted our movement and watered down everything,” he said. “They don’t teach technique. They teach shouting.”

Sandra Maria Esteves, a poet who wrote the introduction for his book, said it was not uncommon for Papoleto to do 20 revisions or more for one poem. Then he would rehearse, alone, with a microphone to get the cadences down pat.  She can relate to his craft, as well as his predicament.

“Ultimately, we’re in a society that does not support paying poets,” she said. “Poets show up, often for no pay, and in the past few years the pay scale has gone way down. I haven’t gotten much lately.”

A poster by his desk declares “Embryonic Poet Laureate” – his riposte to learning about someone being named a teenage poet laureate.  It adorns the apartment he returned to in 1997 after seeing the building being renovated – he wrote the landlord an essay to snag the place. His early life there was formed as much by his father’s absence as his presence. Abraham Melendez – a tinted photo of him looking dapper in a suit adorns the living room – was a Merchant seaman, musician and junkie.

The building where his father cooled his heels – between voyages or benders – was a playground for him and his friends. They would play cowboys and Indians on the twisty stairways and narrow halls. But other things happened too.

“My memories of my father are potent, but few,” he admitted. “I remember once he was shooting up in the hallway upstairs. Even then, he would tell me stuff he knew. ‘Do you know there are two New Yorks?’ he asked me. ‘There’s New York City and New York State.’”

He betrayed no irony in the retelling,  considering his circumstances. Instead, he shared pictures of the old days – from rooftop scenes to super-sharp club dates – cradling them in his hands like treasures.  With a smile, he held out a snapshot of him and Pedro Pietri, a fellow poet, facing the 1977 blackout with candles and bottle of rum.

Filing cabinets are crammed with neatly organized files: of poems past, present and future. He ducked into the sunny bedroom – the only place where sunlight graces the walls – and emerged with a worn leather saddlebag. Gently, he plucked out a thick volume of poems he bound in soft, floppy leather. The onionskin pages gently rustled as he flipped through to his early work.

Within moments, he began to read. Whatever worry creased his face vanished. He swayed gently, as his words flowed through the room, the room with his memories, his writings, his life. The room he may lose.

But not today. Not now.

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