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‘When the voice visits, you’ve got to open the door’

English Instructor Willie Perdomo reads from his recently released poetry collection, “The Crazy Bunch.”

By
Nicole Pellaton
April 11, 2019
Willie Perdomo reading at Phillips Exeter Academy.

Willie Perdomo at the April 9 reading at the Academy Library.

Willie Perdomo enthralled Exeter students and community members on Tuesday evening with a reading of poems from “The Crazy Bunch,” a collection based on his experiences as a young man growing up in East Harlem.

“The Crazy Bunch” revolves around a crew of five friends during a weekend in the 1990s. With events as varied as a rain storm, a sweet 16 party and a violent death, the poems leap with rhythm and vivid language.

“‘The Crazy Bunch’ is a miracle and a gift. An ars poetica that ‘belly-sings the ambrosial hour’ of an unforgettable crew,” writes poet Evie Shockley. “Street sonnets, gangsta ghazals, and Boricua blues stanzas face interrogation by the Poetry Cops, but these poems bust free. ‘Who you again?’ Don’t bring your dictionary; Willie Perdomo rewrote the damn thing.”

Crowded into the Library Commons, the audience of more than 200, mostly students, heard hip-hop rhythms, rhymes and alliterative turns.

Reading “That’s My Heart Right There,” Perdomo anchored his left arm on the lectern and gazed down at his book.

We used to say,
That’s my heart right there.

As if to say,
Don’t mess with her right there.

As if, don’t even play,
That’s a part of me right there.

From around the brightly lit room, the audience watched and listened intently, some reading along with the poet from books in their laps. Perdomo’s right hand moved to the hip-hop rhythm of the couplets, fingers opening and closing. He read the words quickly and clearly, with emphasis on the last two words of each couplet: right there.

Until the very last line: slower, with emphasis on the word die.

As if, come love to pay,
I would die for that right there.

Hear the poet read “That’s My Heart Right There” at the Poetry Foundation.

 

During the extended Q&A session, students peppered Perdomo — an instructor in English at Exeter since 2013 — with questions, many focused on authorial choices and the personal nature of the work. Here are selected excerpts:

On what drove him to publish “The Crazy Bunch:

“When the voice visits, you’ve got to open the door. It’s not like, ‘You can’t come in. I’m not home.’ You can if you want, but then the thing that you’re working on is not really working. It seemed real to me. It seemed honest to me. I wanted to honor hip-hop music. I wanted to honor my favorite movie called ‘Cooley High,’ a movie about five young black teenagers who come of age in 1964 Chicago. And I wanted to honor the kids I grew up with in a barrio in East Harlem at that time.”

On truth in fiction:

“It’s a fine line. Where do you choose to relay and where do you choose to omit? More often than not, what you know about writing narratives is that the clear story is what’s not being told. The silences. The omissions. That’s the real story.”

On the role of memory in storytelling:

“You can’t remember what happened. It’s what Tim O’Brien calls the ‘happening truth.’ But you step in to tell your ‘story truth.’ What you find is that the story truth is more often more accurate than what actually happened. … I only remember the few images that catalyze the cinematic feel of the poem. I remember them clearly. But there’s some other stuff I had to put in to push the book along.”

More to Explore

The Common

Read "Rule-Breaking is a Conscious Decision: an Interview with Willie Perdomo" by Lisa Martinez. 

Go to the page titled The Common

Poetry Foundation

The editors of "Poetry" discuss Perdomo’s poem “That’s My Heart Right There.”

Go to the page titled Poetry Foundation