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The Short Version: The Nuyorican Poets Cafe originated in 1973 in a New York City apartment before moving to a former tenement building on the Lower East Side in 1981. Over the past few decades, the Cafe has become a celebrated performance venue for performance poets, jazz musicians, actors, playwrights and hip-hop artists. Many of the Cafe’s staff members and teaching artists are also writers and performers. Weekly poetry slams always sell out and make for unique date nights; spectators are welcome to jump onstage at open mic nights. Engaging content from these events often sparks deep conversation. Thanks to grants, the Cafe is expanding, and will soon offer additional space for performances, classes, and events.
In 1973, poet Miguel Algarín hosted a series of informal, salon-style gatherings in his New York City apartment. These events were attended by artists of color – including many of Puerto Rican heritage – whose work was not accepted by the mainstream.
As the number of artists and spectators increased, the events became more like formal performances. The audience outgrew the apartment, and in 1981, the organization purchased, for a mere $7,800, a former tenement building, which became known as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Since then, the Cafe has become incredibly popular with poets, playwrights, prose writers, jazz musicians, storytellers, and even film and hip-hop artists.
Developers have offered to buy the building for millions of dollars, said Daniel Gallant, Executive Director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. But the group intends to stay put and expand its operations, while continuing to honor its mission as a space for emerging artists and authentic, outspoken performances.
Over the last four decades, the organization has hosted a diverse population of artists, spectators, and students, Daniel said. He adds that Alan Ginsburg is quoted as saying the Cafe is the most integrated place on the planet.
“Even though that’s a more dated way of expressing the idea, we still very much embrace the philosophy behind that quote,” he said. The staff consists of about 20 people, all of whom are passionate about giving a voice to up-and-coming artists, especially minorities.
“We look at poetry and spoken word, in general, as a unifying art form,” Daniel said. “The barriers to entry for performances in our space are very low.”
The performances are often refreshing for people who are getting to know each other on a date. “To be around art that is direct, interactive, and honest, and even sometimes a little raw and experimental, gives spectators something to talk with each other about,” Daniel said.
While most of the performers at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe are rising artists who have not yet achieved visibility, some go on to have successful careers and make big names for themselves. Among the well-known celebrities who honed their craft at the Cafe are Chris Rock, John Leguizamo, Rosario Dawson, and Rosie Perez.
“There are thousands of artists who performed at our Cafe before anyone had heard of them,” Daniel said. “For our staff, our artists, our board, and even our volunteers, it’s rewarding to provide opportunities to those who often don’t have access to other performance venues. We like working with artists who are still finding their voice, making a name for themselves, and figuring out how they want to practice their art.”
Daniel said that is what drives him and the staff to continue hosting events.
He also points out that many other organizations prefer to work with established artists who have perfected their craft. That strategy, while perhaps safer, can lead to artistic programs that are more repetitive and less rewarding.
“I appreciate the experience of running an organization that takes chances every day on new and rising artists, and helps young creatives distinguish themselves,” he said.
Another unique feature of the Cafe is that its staff wears many hats; they all pitch in when it comes to programming, scouting new events, and working hands-on with artists. Additionally, about 70% of the staff are artists who perform both at the Cafe and at other venues. Many also teach arts-related classes.
“I think the personal investment of our staff in creative pursuits sets us apart from other arts organizations where there’s a real distinction between professional staff and creative types,” Daniel said.
While artists of all types grace the stage at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, it’s perhaps best known for recurring spoken word events. During Monday and Wednesday open mic nights, anyone and everyone has an opportunity to get on stage.
The Cafe’s keystone event is its Friday Night Poetry Slam, which Daniel said always sells out and has a line down the block of people wanting to get in. The poets who compete at this weekly event have already won at least one open mic night, and tend to be experienced performers. Audience members who are selected as guest judges help pick the winners.
“From an audience perspective, the poetry slam is fun because you get to see accomplished poets use their wits, eloquence and craft to outperform each other,” he said. And at the end of the slam, there’s an open mic at which anyone can get up and perform.
The slam poetry nights are part of a year-long tournament. Winners of the regular weekly slams move onto semifinal rounds; those winners advance to the grand slam final in the spring; and the top-scoring poets from each year are placed on the Cafe’s official slam team, which performs at the National Poetry Slam and is booked for regional performances.
Daniel adds that if you and your date are chosen to be judges, you can work together to decide how to score each performance. “It’s a bit of an adventurous date; it brings people together and shows them sides of each other’s personality you might not see on a traditional date over wine or coffee,” he says.
While the Nuyorican Poets Cafe owns its building and keeps expenses low, it is still a nonprofit organization that relies on donations and grants to help further its mission. The organization’s building has three upper floors that have been unused since the 1980s, because they need extensive renovations. The Cafe recently secured $12 million in capital grants from the City of New York, which will make it possible to renovate those floors and expand its footprint, Daniel said.
“Throughout next season, we’re going to celebrate the art forms and traditions that the Cafe is known for, as well as to showcase artists whose path through the creative world began at our venue.” — Daniel Gallant, Nuyorican Poets Cafe Executive Director
“We’re going to turn those upper floors into additional classroom space, offices, and rehearsal and performance space,” he said. “So we’ll be able to have three events going on simultaneously. Right now, we can only host one event at a time.”
Daniel added that since the renovation relies on government funding, it will take place gradually over the next three years. But when it is finished, the venue will have more than twice as much space as it does now to feature poetry, theater, music, and educational events.
In the meantime, the Cafe is celebrating its 45th anniversary season, which will kick off with a block party in July. “Throughout next season, we’re going to celebrate the art forms and traditions that the Cafe is known for, as well as to showcase artists whose path through the creative world began at our venue,” Daniel said.
The slam poetry and open mic nights are entertaining, Daniel said, but they’re also intended to provide opportunities for audience members to consider viewpoints that may be different from their own. The Cafe’s spoken word events tend to feature content that is very politically and socially relevant, he said. While the organization doesn’t favor any particular cause, it encourages performers to comment on political, economic, and social issues.
“At our spoken word events, poets share a rich diversity of opinions about relevant topics,” he said. “Audiences respond to the vibrant immediacy of the work.”
Couples who visit the Cafe’s events on a first date often have a lot to discuss afterward. Poetry slams and open mics tend to spark conversations and romantic experiences that continue late at the Cafe’s bar or spill over to other locations.
“Spectators often tell us that they had a more transformative, fulfilling, and enlightening experience at one of our poetry events than at cultural activities elsewhere in the city,” he said.
In fact, he said that multiple couples had gotten engaged at the Cafe after having first met there or attended a poetry slam or open mic night together.
Daniel encourages attendees who like what they see onstage at the Cafe to consider getting involved. He said that many of the venue’s most accomplished alumni started as spectators at slams and open mics, before they decided to give performing a shot.