Willie Perdomo is the author of The Crazy Bunch (Penguin Poets, 2019) The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon (Penguin Poets, 2014), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of the International Latino Book Award; Smoking Lovely (Rattapallax, 2004), winner of the PEN Open Book Award, and Where a Nickel Costs a Dime (Norton, 1996), a finalist for the Poetry Society of America Norma Farber First Book Award. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, Poetry, Bomb Magazine, and African Voices. He is currently a Lucas Arts Program Literary Fellow and teaches English at Phillips Exeter Academy.
Willie and I are friends and colleagues at Phillips Exeter Academy. We met in Exeter over martinis to discuss his newest collection, The Crazy Bunch, a book of poems about a pivotal weekend in the lives of five young friends, the Crazy Bunch, in East Harlem in the ‘90s.
Editorial assistance provided by Jenna Baillargeon.
Matt W. Miller: So why this book? Why The Crazy Bunch? What brought you back there?
Willie Perdomo: You reach a level of calmness in your life that allows you to recollect a bit more clearly. And then all it takes is a trigger, a Nas feeling, which I have mentioned to you before.
MWM: Yeah, that documentary about Nas, Time is Illmatic?
WP: It was important to me because it took me back to that time and that’s when I really started exploring what it means to be from somewhere, to have a home and how is that defined. One of the things that I discovered is that defining “home” is a memory proposition. It stays there and it never leaves you, so all it takes is a lyric from a song, an instant where the story comes back to you and it propels you back into a time of your life that you really haven’t reckoned with. How does that connect to trauma? How does that connect to not just trauma, but the rituals we had in play to give ourselves joy, to find fun, to be able to be goofy with each other, to be vulnerable with each other. I had always written about the Crazy Bunch, you know? Petey was a character that shows up again. I think Petey’s death, for me, was impactful and it hit me hard because he was less than twenty years old. The Crazy Bunch and some of the characters that are popping up in this recent collection have also appeared in previous collections, like Brother Lo, like Petey. It was also a way to remember the deaths of some folks like Dre. Someone like Nestor is more of a composite. This was a way for me to recall a moment, a collection of moments, to reckon with them, and to honor them.
MWM: And in trying to honor it, what is the fear that you may not get it right?
WP: I’ve battled with that question for the last few months. Who did I leave out? Who did I not mention? Who is going to approach me on Lexington and say, “Yo man, why didn’t you write about me?” Conversely, did I get some of that shit wrong? But again, it’s my memory, and not even my memory, but the speaker’s memory, and sometimes your memory is not the safest place. It’s the memory of the person who’s writing the book. It’s their memory and what they choose to remember in the face of that remembering. One of the biggest battles I had was the mentioning of names. How different would the book have been if I had made the names up and then have brothers who were down with the Crazy Bunch say, “Uh, who the hell was ______? Who was that person? I don’t know that person.”
I think the best feedback I got was from my boy Phil. After reading about a third of the book, he called me to say that he liked the poem “Guiso.” He said, “It was in that poem that we were all there.” His experience of reading that piece made him feel like we were all there because there were no names mentioned. The specificity of that experience was like me throwing out a large net and catching the whole crew. But the focus on just a few characters was necessary so that you could follow a narrative arc.
MWM: Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” The Crazy Bunch is looking back at a time, a place, a people, trying to get their stories down and right. What do you think about the notion of getting the Truth right, even if you miss out on some of the facts, and if those two things have to be the same, or can they be different?
WP: I tried to capture the recollection of that experience. As if to say, you have these war-like, traumatic experiences and you retell them and retell them and each time you add something that wasn’t there the first time. The truth effect of that is that it just becomes larger and larger because your memory details are at work. The question then becomes: how many of those little embellishments—how many of those little nuances—can you add up before they tell a larger truth about the time that you were living in? That’s really the effect of writing a book, I think. Because if I read the book to you as if I were telling a story, over this interview, and then you tried to go and tell that story to someone else, you might leave a few things out in the relay. And then, based on your experience in Lowell, you might add some things from your experience that heightened my story. And that, for me, is the way the storytelling process works. Sometimes storytelling took place on a stoop, from where I was watching, an open window, or a corner on which I was standing. You would hear these stories that seemed really far-fetched, but they were so engaging that you became invested. And then there’s the people who are listening to your story, and there’s always a few of those folks that want to chip in. They add what they heard to the story and then you see this little ripple just getting wider and wider and wider.
MWM: The first poem is Skinicky’s interview with the Poetry Cops. They ask if he was writing poems and says, “Bro, poems were falling from the rooftops, flailing out the windows; sometimes you’d pick up the corner pay phone and a poem would be calling collect.” I love this idea that sometimes the poems are just waiting for a poet to put it down on paper. Was it hard to figure out what not to include in this book? What story doesn’t come in? How do you edit that down when it’s all flailing “out the window?”
WP: You know, it’s interesting. When a book comes to you hot like that, the question becomes how much can you grab? What can you flow with?
MWM: But were there things that you thought, “Oh, I definitely have to have this,” and then they don’t make it in?
WP: Skinicky is pretty clear, and some of the other characters that show up are pretty clear about what it is they can actually tell the Poetry Cops. There’s some stuff they just can’t tell. So that begs the question, how much of the story do you actually keep to yourself? As readers, we can be really greedy. I’m sure you’ve been in a workshop setting where students/workshop participants say. “Well, I wanted a little more of this. I wanted a little bit more of that.” And sometimes you just can’t have that. That’s not really what the writer might be intending. The Poetry Cops are sort of facilitating the workshop, if you will. What is it that you need that would actually make the story more palatable to you?
MWM: Who are the Poetry Cops? I remember seeing an earlier draft of the manuscript and they weren’t in there. And then they come in and sometimes I get the feeling they’re like the people who weren’t there that weekend, that will never be part of that, and they will try and find out what it was, but they will never be down the way the people who lived it were.
WP: Right. They absolutely were not there during that fateful weekend. I think the Poetry Cops idea was ignited by Patrick Rosal. I sent him a copy of the manuscript and there was a line in “Breaking Night” that reads, “In that year of a shot to the head, where were you the first time you broke night?” Patrick said, “That’s the type of opening that could really drive a book because it’s begging for an answer. The poems might be the answer.” It dawned on me that this might happen if I had an interview process, like what we’re doing now, and you came out with a picture or two and said, “Tell me about this picture.”
MWM: “Where were you on this night?”
WP: That’s right! And it explodes into a collective way of telling a story. You are now complicit. The best way I know of telling a story, at times, is to have someone ask me a question like, “Yo, do you remember that summer we went that jam and so-and-so slipped while he was dancing?” You know what I’m saying? Those kind of memories that people want you to recall over and over again. The Poetry Cops also symbolize a level of correction and interrogation, which really is a tool used in a police state. Interrogation was a tool that was relentlessly used, say, in the case of the Central Park Five. The idea that you’re asking a question and I am giving you an answer, but my answer is not good enough because it doesn’t fit your pre-written script.
MWM: And you know what they want, too, but aren’t giving to give to them, at least not straight.
MWM: They are telling it, but telling it slant.
WP: Yeah, telling it slant. Which is the way of fiction, right? The Poetry Cops represent the literary interview and the correctional interrogation.
MWM: And just the idea that the literary interviewer says, “Tell us what that poem means,” and it’s like, “I just told you. The poem will explain the poem.” There’s a story that one time Robert Frost was asked to explain the meaning of “After Apple Picking” and he basically said, “Sure,” and read the poem again.
WP: (Laughs) I think Eliot was famous for having said, more or less, “Meaning is what you throw at the guard dog while you go inside and rob the house.” That’s part of it, too. What the reader chooses to get stuck on, and what you lose in the exchange.
MWM: Trying to find or impose a pattern.
WP: And the Poetry Cops also make references to photographers, right? They make references to other poets, right? So they are “in conversation,” which is another phrase we like to use when we are writing these books. That question of “Who are you in conversation with?” Skinicky’s in conversation with the Poetry Cops. And to the extent that they try to probe, they can only get so far. That’s what makes it an inside book. It’s really particular to the people that lived in that neighborhood during that time.
MWM: It’s these people and their story, but we get to experience their story. We can feel that story and get into that story through the honesty and the trauma and mechanisms for dealing with trauma. How do you pull that off? These are specific incidences and yet we can belong to it, in some way.
WP: I think the joy of reading any book is that you enter where you can, like reading a poem. Sometimes we start off with a title or we enjoy a piece for its sonic effect, an image, or innovation. Reading a book is more or less the same process. At the start, you might be outside the experience, but the language is specific enough that it will draw you in, first with its music and then with its attempt at recollection. The more Skinicky recollects, the more you’re invested in putting the pieces together.
MWM: Do you ever feel, and this is a big conversation right now, that you don’t have the right to tell someone’s story? Using another’s voice can be controversial now. This idea that you can only tell your own story. People have always written like that, but it’s a anxious time for that kind of fiction. How do you enter that? Do you ever feel like, “Ah, I can’t tell this person’s story?”
WP: I think it has been part of my practice in a way that I probably did not realize as a younger poet. Documentary poetics. You become an unofficial historian. You become the griot for your community. You become the person who passes on those stories. I’ve always been interested in the collective voice. The voice of a community. So much contemporary poetry seems to be fixated on the singular voice. I’m not necessarily worried about being construed as an appropriationist because the schools that were informing me at the time were engaged in similar techniques and strategies. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a monologue in a Langston Hughes poem. It wasn’t uncommon to witness a prophetic figure in your neighborhood who was there to tell you when the final days were coming. And I feel like I had permission to exercise those voices because the people who meant the most to me, the people I was writing for, were affirming my life as a poet in that moment.
MWM: In what way?
WP: The most immediate way would be the pride my boys were taking in my poems. They would often point at things that I should write about. They became part of the process.
MWM: Are these people in your circle or people you don’t even know?
WP: Well, sometimes it’s people I don’t know. I’ve seen folks tearing up at readings when I read a poem like “They Won’t Find Us in Books” and I can feel people lamenting the passage of youth. I can feel people mourning a loss of innocence in that moment. One friend texted me to say that one of her friends was “in his feelings” after reading The Crazy Bunch.
MWM: In “They Won’t Find Us in Books,” that place and time your write about is being erased and even gentrified. This neighborhood is probably not the same type of place that you grew up in. Some of the trauma is probably gone, but some of the heart isn’t there either.
WP: Right. So the choice I had as a writer then is that I get misinterpreted as appropriating the experience or I’m complicit in the erasure. At that point, I’d rather just tell a story and you can take it from there.
MWM: And you’ve read some of these poems now, to these guys who are characters in the book. Have they called you out on anything?
WP: (Laughs) Not yet. I saw a friend of mine, Milton, during Boricua Week in East Harlem. He told me a story about how there was someone from the block, on his Facebook thread, asking if I had written about them. And Milton kind of made up this story about how I wrote about a bizarre, sexual, wild night that our boy had with one of the few transvestites who lived in our neighborhood and the guy got pissed off. Milton was making things up. Goofing. In that moment, Milton was kind of adding to my book on a Facebook thread. Apparently, the brother was upset for a few days. There were a couple of my brothers who came to the reading in East Harlem. In that moment, what you want more than anything is for them to be proud and happy. There was no room for correction or to be corrected. Because again, my reply would be, “Well, think of this book like a movie. It’s fiction.” I had to tell one of my friends, “Bro, when you open the book, don’t go looking for yourself.” I had to be really upfront about that.
MWM: You’re there, but you’re not there in that way.
WP: Part of you is there. Where you find yourself is where you find yourself and that’s the beauty of the reading experience.
MWM: That’s right for anyone who reads any book.
WP: Right. It’s something I have been thinking about, but not something I have been confronted with. I think my concern was with folks who were left out, who I didn’t remember at that moment.
MWM: I’m working on something now like that, about a time and place. I’m thinking more and more about what I haven’t done and what I’ve left out. And that, if I leave something out, the whole book is a failure, or I’ve failed who the book is trying to celebrate or give a reckoning to.
WP: But then in that moment you are confronted with something dangerous: a vicious kind of worry cycle. You end up adding shit in, adding things that don’t belong, adding things in just to be right. In a book like this, I really could not be worried about being “right.” I’m using words in the book right now that are really not correct for some people. Even with the title. You can’t call someone “crazy” these days. Off the jump, off the title, I’m already in hot water. That’s a chance I assume I have to take and not one I necessarily am thinking about in the writing process, but more so considering as a reader, and teacher.
MWM: The book does a great job at catching some of the vernacular and the musical warp of English and Spanish, through the weft of clipped and coded language through a neighborhood of cruel as the time was—how hard was it to get that right? How important was it to get that right?
WP: Aw, shit. That was the easiest thing, Matt. “Warp” is a nice word, too. Like all of these kinds of waves and tones just kind of flowing into each other. And I knew that when I heard back from my copyeditor—because usually what they do is they send you a list of words that show up that they had to define or look up—and the shit was like seven pages long! And for me, that was telling me that I was in the right place with the vernacular construction of this particular book.
MWM: They become the Poetry Cops in a way.
WP: Yeah, like, “Can you please tell me what this means?” And not only that, but also finding definitions for those words that were wrong in connection to how I was using the word. But I think once I found the opening lines, I found the timbre of the book. I found the diction of the book. I knew that I was writing to someone specific so that my audience was specific. I knew that if The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon was a book about salsa music and descarga, this book was my hip-hop album. Once that first line came to me, all I had to do was follow that reply.
MWM: Just tap into it—
WP: And keep going. Just keep going. Don’t get in your own way. And also, be allowed to hang out with your book and talk to your book and drink with your book and dance with your book because that was part of it. That was the easiest part, I think. But also, not using the vernacular in the way that made it obsolete, that it could still be current. It could still have a present-moment type vibe, to understand that these coded languages were developed as a way to communicate in a survival context. Survival, but also a way of getting a message across, too, of communicating with someone you grew up with.
MWM: That actually brings me back to a question I have. There’s obviously a lot of loss and violence that happens to the kids in the story. There’s trauma, as you mention, but it’s not a book that fetishizes or tries to capitalize on that trauma or that pain. I read it as a book that celebrates, that dances, but that also keeps one eye on the door to see who might be coming through, just in case. Was this something you intended, something you consciously did? It can hurt and sting and is electric and alive. It’s popping, but it’s also wounded at the same time.
WP: One of my hopes is that you, as a reader, come away with an understanding that there was a level of trauma conducted by violence, police brutality, self-destruction, drug warfare, but that it was also tempered by joy, celebration, ritual, a community of elders that protected you, dancing, movies, and that that weekend wasn’t a one-note weekend. That weekend had all the colors of all the big themes and I always maintain that you could find all of those themes in the course of a weekend, if not a day. As a reader, you’re going to take away what you take away, but it would be a slight reading if you just focused on the trauma of the book because this book actually celebrates these five young men, even though they experienced a hell of a lot of loss in a short amount of time.
MWM: It celebrates their ability to celebrate in the face of loss and pain. How do you find that, especially as kids? Or do we find it only as kids?
WP: That’s been my question, too. How do we find that? In order to find that, we would have to accept part, if not all, of what was happening as normal. Come to find out, there’s nothing normal about any of that shit. But that’s a question that drove the book. How were we able to find that joy moment? You know that moment. When you’re hanging out and someone tells that funny story and you all laugh at the same time. One of my favorite moments is where Skinicky, Angel, and Phat Phil are hallucinating and they’re at the sweet sixteen party and Phil is dancing with one of Josephine’s aunts and he keeps bumping into the tables and Josephine’s grandmother gets up and spins him back into his world, into his rightful place in the world. I remember being at those parties and us laughing at each other trying to dance. Salsa was part of our culture, our tradition, our history, it was part of our language. But once hip-hop came into play, salsa took a back seat. So, us trying to even dance to it was material enough for comedy.
MWM: The last words of the book riff off of Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning”—
WP: Oh, I couldn’t wait for you to ask that question. No one’s touched it yet, but I’m glad you’re the person to do it.
MWM: In “Sunday Morning,” Stevens says, “Death is the mother of beauty.” The Poetry Cops bring this up when they are interrogating Skinicky and his answer, the last lines in the whole book, are, “Then where is that niggas’s father?”
That was like a forearm shiver through my skull. It builds on and then raises the stakes of Stevens’s famous refrain. Like, this idea that beauty having an absentee father, or perhaps an implied loss of God, then pulling in the N-word and all of its complicated layers of meaning and history, and then ending the whole collection on a question with the last word being “father.” There’s a lot going on there. How or why did the book end there for you? Did you write into it or did you just have to find a way to get there? Did you hit it and were like, “Shit! That’s the poem, that’s the line!”
WP: I’ve been struggling with this since April second, man. A part of me feels like I could have restructured that whole interview. We could have ended with the Poetry Cops saying, “Alright, we’re going to ask you again.” And Skinicky says, “Alright, ask me.” Cut to black. But the way you are interpreting this makes it a more powerful ending because you’re getting all the allusions in that one little question, whereas folks who might not read as much poetry, the reference might fly right by them. So what is Skinicky touching on? We were fatherless young men. We were. The old-timers were, too. They lost their dads to Vietnam and PTSD. If we’re talking about beauty, is there no co-parent?
MWM: In all the years that people have been very “smartly” quoting that poem, like, “Oh, death is the mother beauty,” and then some kid goes—
WP: “Oh, shit. Where the fuck is his father?”
MWM: “Who the fuck is his father?” Exactly.
WP: Right. So, the father piece is there. The other piece is playing off of Stevens’s slight of Gwendolyn Brooks. It’s been written that Stevens saw a picture of Brooks, during a meeting with the National Book Award committee, and said, “Who let the coon in?” Now, some folks say that Brooks’s recollection was that Stevens actually said, “Who let the nigger in?” Not coon. Skinicky is trying to play off that with his final question. And if you noticed, the Poetry Cops didn’t know anything about Baraka, but they knew all about Stevens.
MWM: They know that ol’ white canon.
WP: Right. And that’s kind of the implication. Who’s guarding the gate? I think you realized that Skinciky hit all the marks in that one single question. But there’s no resolution to this book, no carthasis, no healing. You’re always kind of contending with the trauma, the unknown, the secret. So, who has the authority to define beauty? I’m really glad you asked that question because it’s not a subject that anyone has really talked about in the last few months. I’m not sure if it’s an avoidance issue. Again, I didn’t know while I was writing the book that somehow my use of the word might be problematic. But after I wrote the book, my teaching head kicked in and I was like, “Oh, shit. Would I teach this book given the language? Would I be brave enough to teach this book?” And how does that play out when you are creating art? So, if I go in correcting myself as soon as I put pen to paper, then my book is dead.
MWM: The last words of the poem. And he’s smarter than the Poetry Cops, maybe smarter than Stevens. I’ll never read Stevens again without thinking, “Yeah, but also this!” It reminded me of guys I grew up with who were smarter in a lot of ways than the guys I brought back from college. They didn’t always get access to the good classes or parents who were checking their homework, you know. They’re not going to college. But man, stand at a pool table with them and they’d school you verbally while they schooled you at 8 Ball.
MWM: And he may not have all the poetry in front of him but—
WP: They have the wit.
MWM: Yeah, they have the wit.
WP: Not only do they have wit, but they have the right level of brevity for the wit. And that’s the key, I think. So yeah, man. You know, I felt like I had to take a risk. One of the poets I sent the book to said, “This is where you end it,” but I had a different ending and I was like, “Really?” And she was like, “Yeah, this is where you need to end it.” And I still have second thoughts about it, but maybe after this conversation I probably won’t.
MWM: I read it and I was like, I gotta start the book over again to see how we got here!
WP: Right, right. And maybe that’s what this conversation is really all about. I was waiting for the question. I had seen the question and was thinking how to talk about its intentions. Clearly, to question the canon; and two, to talk about our fatherless lives and how we found each other as men; and three, how to define beauty; and four, how to play off that word, given Stevens’s remarks about Gwendolyn Brooks and the fact that, when Skinicky uses the word “nigga,” you can’t really connect a gender to it. Beauty is fluid.
MWM: I don’t know if beauty has gender. I think it’s beyond gender. And “Death” is such a character in the book. All kinds of deaths. Literal deaths, figurative deaths, deaths as an engine of change. But it’s risky.
WP: Shit, if you’re not taking the risk, then why write? What to be true to in that moment of writing? It goes back to Toni Morrison’s idea that you can’t write with a censor on your shoulder. She called it a “white gaze.” Sometimes that censor is trying to do the “right” thing. Sometimes, it’s your partner. Sometimes, it’s a family member who is stomping on every effort you’re making to be a human being. But you have to brush it away. For me, it was never there. As soon as those first words came out, there was no one standing on my shoulder. And I think we talked about how liberated and how free I really, really felt in that moment.
MWM: Who are some poets who inspire you?
WP: I would have to say…
MWM: It’s a tough question.
WP: But it’s a good question. There’s a handful of poets I kept coming back to. John Murillo is one of them. He has a book coming out in 2020 and I can’t wait to read it. Patrick Rosal. Ntozake Shange. And you know, she died recently. I remember how electrified I felt by reading Nappy Edges. I would say there’s a whole crew of them really, like David Tomas Martinez. I would say Randall Horton, Evie Schockley, and Toni Cade Bambara. There was a lot of your work I connected to in poems that depicted your relationship to your father, but also just growing up in Lowell, and not being afraid to go to those uncomfortable rooms in a poem. How does one journey to become a man? What’s that like? I would say Reginald Dwayne Betts’ Bastards of the Reagan Era was pretty influential. These were poets and writers I was looking at very carefully because they seemed to have been writing about things that I had been thinking about or been preoccupied with.
MWM: We’re both acolytes of Toomer’s Cane. It amazes me how many people don’t know it. That’s a book you buy five copies of and give away four of them.
WP: Cane, for me, set the bar. When I was first introduced to Cane, I was like a big, inner-city autobiography fan. And I still am. Piri Thomas changed my life. Cooley High changed my life. Manchild in the Promised Land changed my life. These books and films gave me perspective. But Toomer made me want to work out more. He made me want to jump a little higher. Practice more. How is it possible to have prose, poetry, and a play inside of a whole book and have a thread run through it? Once I hit Cane, my reading became expansive. I wanted to know how to write in hybrid forms. I wanted to know how to write poems. I wanted to know how to write plays. I wanted to know how to write stories, you know? Storytelling has been one of my preoccupations. How do you tell a story? Who gets to tell the story? Who has the right to tell the story? Who’s listening to the story? Who are you telling the story to? That’s my biggest question, always.
MWM: Do you think that, as you were writing this book, you knew who you were writing to?
WP: Oh, yeah, definitely.
MWM: So you’re a teacher—you’re a teacher, husband, father. You work at a boarding school in New Hampshire where they will take all your time. How do you find the time to, as I’ve heard you tell your students, “protect your dream spaces”?
WP: You close the door and turn off the phone. You do so for fifty minutes and it’s just you and the project. I think that it helps to have a specific project that you can work on and keep coming back to. That’s important. I have to add that where we work, in our department, there are a handful of writers, like yourself, that are producing. They serve as models. Some teachers grade four papers a day so they can make time to play the guitar. Some teachers wake up a couple of hours earlier so they can work on an essay. The practice becomes a discipline and the discipline becomes the thing that keeps the doldrums of your “professional life” at bay. It’s not like you ignore the doldrums. You have to address your personal life and your professional life and all the responsibility that comes with it. But you have to be very intentional and conscious about creating a space where you can engage your imagination, write about a dream you had the night before, a thought that you might have had during a meeting, something a student said, but it always comes back to the idea of having a specific project that you’re working on and that you make time for. You respect and honor your relationship with a given project.
MWM: So, what’s next?
WP: (Laughs) Ah! We’ll have to pause the recorder at this point.
MWM: (Laughs) Then I guess we’re good.