David Hernández: the Nuyorican Poet Chi-Town Style
A version of Marc Zimmerman’s article on the poet, originally published in 1990, and republished here in view of Guild Complex’s tribute to Hernández, March 20, 2014.
Since the 1970s, David Hernández, figured as a major personality and poet in the Chicago literary scene—Latino and otherwise. Indeed for most non-Latino Chicagoans, Hernández has been and still is Chicago Puerto Rican poetry. He was the perennial ubiquitous representative, the one let in the front door, the talented “token” in citywide, statewide, nationwide anthologies, our Nuyorican poet Chi-town style. Of course, for some Latinos and Puerto Ricans, he remains too disreputable, too connected with bohemianism, booze, jazz, black culture, white culture. He’s too much a paradox: at once the Chicago institution and alternative model for young Rican gangbangers, yet too anarchistic, too anti-establishment, too beat, hippie, and the rest. Some complain about his unwillingness to join a specific Puerto Rican political group, even as he works for and is identified with the most progressive political trends in Chicago. Some complain he takes Puerto Rican problems too lightly. But the fact is that Hernández has taken on the traditional stance of the poet manqué. Whether in truth or in fantasy, he has taken on the persona of a Puerto Rican Whitman or Hart Crane, singing fiercely democratic and populist hymns to the bums, drunks, losers and bag ladies, all those whose fates are somehow comparable to the worst things possible in the Puerto Rican Diaspora.
The fact also is that by means of his chimerical poetic identity, he has been able to stand for many of the identity possibilities and directions that exist in the Puerto Rican community. He has had, then, the “negative capability” Keats ascribed to a fairly well-known poet, which has enabled Hernández to represent many—the men if not all the women. Hernández has sought to be Chicago’s complete Rican male voice, has sought to express the entire range of U.S. Puerto Rican literary themes, from nostalgia over roots, to growing up Latino in the rough part of town, to the struggle for equality and recognition, to an expansion beyond the Puerto Rican and more broadly Latino world to the still larger world beyond. This gamut is present in Hernández’s collection, self-published with friends and significantly called Despertando (Waking Up, 1971).
As far as I can gather, Despertando is the first poetry collection by a Chicago Latino. Not fortuitously, it appeared in the same year that The Rican was born, and on the eve of the birth of Revista Chicano‑Riqueña. The title is derived from the nationalist chant, Despierta Boricua, defiende lo tuyo (Wake up Puerto Ricans, defend what’s yours). The refrain was constantly heard in Chicago’s Puerto Rican neighborhoods, especially in the 1970s. It is present as well in the poems that appear in the Nosotros Anthology of Chicago poetry, edited anonymously by Hernández and published as a special issue of Revista Chicano-Requeña in 1977; it is also quite present in almost all of Hernández’ssubsequent work. Despertando itself is very uneven (almost all the best, most realized poems are in the first pages of the book); and in this way, it anticipates not only most of Hernández’s themes but also his main characteristics as a writer. Here, with the question of unevenness, we should be a bit careful, however. For, as his first book shows, Hernández’s art situates itself as a virtual manifesto of creative improvization.
Capable of rewriting and rewriting a given poem year after year, Hernández nevertheless insists, through form and overt statement, on the crucial, inviolable status of inspiration and spontaneity. Since part of his art is an irreverence to academic poetics, his trick is frequently to create a poem which seems unpremeditated and unchecked, even when the effect may prove ultimately calculated. The poems are written as variants of an unstated melody or set of chords, in function of a given rhythm design, with internal rhymes and other poetic devices creating a sense of form which is then continually violated, usually in a gentle and mocking way, as if the dissonance or rhythmic interruption is a function of life’s or society’s confusions, disequilibria and discord. From 1972 on for many years, Hernández usually read/performed his poems with his musical group, Los Sonidos de la Calle or Street Sounds (often base, guitar and congas and other percussion) in a Latin-jazz syncretism that paralleled and complemented the mixing process found in the poems themselves. And since the Sounds supplied the unheard undercurrent music and rhythm, the full effect of Hernández’s stylistic tricks came to the fore: the half-shaped, purposely offbeat line played out against the more truly formed notes and chord patterns; the dissonance, interruptedness and tentativeness of one between two cultural systems, belief patterns and imperatives emerges most fully. Perhaps this is Hernández’s challenge as a writer: many of his poems dont work as well on paper as they do against a musical background or just read aloud. Part of this question is one of spoken word and performance; in the 1980s, theatrical productions based on his poems proved them effective, even when he was not directly delivering them.
The references to music and theater are just indications of the broad artistic orientations sometimes hidden by Hernández’s populist thematics and attitudes. So, when asked about his inspiration, his reference is not to music or theater but to sculpture. “Poetry is the tool to change the English language,” he says:
I am out to destroy the language of silly fascists and rebuild it for all of us. This white sculptor Julian Harr took me into his studio in 1963 and I became his apprentice. Not as a sculptor but as a poet. By watching him carve and chip away, create form out of formlessness is how I learned the craft of poetry. My life was half into my people and half into the artist counter—cultural bohemian life—style that Julian represented. From there on my circle of artists from all races and backgrounds grew larger until all hell broke loose and I found my heaven.[i]
But after this trip into sculpture, the reference seems to go into music after all:
I am a product of the African Griot, and the antenna of the race. Poetry is important to me because it fills the space between my heart-beats.
Born in Cidra, Puerto Rico in 1946, Hernández arrived in Chicago with his parents, two brothers and a sister in 1955. As one of his poems tell us, his parents were very poor; they lived mainly on the Puerto Rican Northside, and he went to three different grade schools, was demoted, displaced and spewed through and out of the educational system “because no spik English.” In the late 60s, he was already a member of the counter-culture, into drugs, jazz, and (if we can believe his poetry) lots of hetero-sex. Dedicating his work to all those who he can call his people and community, he tumbled out his poems, half hacked, half formed, bits and pieces taken here and there, some impressions on Chicago’s CTA, vignettes out of Chicago night lights, some personal remembrances which, considered together, might make a little novel, a miniature version of a Latino life, like Eduardo Rivera’s Family Installments. So, Despertando starts in Puerto Rico with a boy climbing up a mountain, tin pail full, dogs barking and dogs singing behind him. Next he is on a plane, arriving at Midway Airport. A proud boy but brown, anticipating the smiles of Americans, he arrives and is hit by the Chicago wind. And as the book unfolds, we see him get to know his new world. There are poems about Puerto Ricans young and old, about lumpens brown, black and white. There’s a Puerto Rican man who loses his fingers and job, swallows his pride and gets on welfare, a Puerto Rican teen who has no choice but to join the army, a suffering Mexicana, a prostitute, a lonely old woman eating alone. The remembrances and vignettes rank among his best work—they are hard, deeply felt portraits of an unjust and cruel reality.
Similar qualities are found in the Nosotros materials of 1977. In two poems that he will later weave together as part of a chant that will become virtually his signature I though his signature was “I am Chi-Town Brown,” the poet intones:
El fire hydrant The fire hydrant
es mi playa is my beach
bajo un calor in a heat
que hasta desmaya that makes even
las cucarachas cockroaches
y los ratones and rats faint
aqui en Chicago. here in Chicago.
am rican turned
indio/ can i forgive
in between you for that?
all which i can.
is alive i
was in you.
(Hernández, “Me la Buscaré” and “White Statue,” in Nosotros: 3–4).
Some of the longer poems which follow are far from his best, but one, “Tecata” (Nosotros: 4), gives us a harsh portrait of how country Puerto Rican values are bludgeoned by the urban nightmares which lead from drugs to death. And finally, in “Fame,” we have one of several run-on catalogue poems that are usually his biggest successes:
now that i have been discovered
i will no longer write nasty poems about america.
i will no longer hang her flag in the bathroom.
i will no longer scream that the only good system
is the chicago sewer system even though it clogs up at times...
I will be discussed in english classes,
the types of rhymes I used
the deep—hidden meanings in my lines and
how inspiration hit me in a chicago rain.
In a much more recent poem, Hernández says “I want to be a real poet/ so I can participate in poetry—discussions.” Now that Hernández is more or less famous (at least in Chicago), here we are dissecting and assessing him. In a telling statement, he notes, “Being from Illinois and Chicago, the environment, the place of the city definitely influences the images and rhythm of poetry.... Being in a racist town,” he adds, “Latino poets must be slicker, tougher and no holds barred kill with kindness artists.” In Despertando sometimes the situation leads to anger:
I do not care who you
are or why
here is me from
not the united states
of amerikkka in
sweat piss time
grass trees sky
(“El,” in Despertando: 52)
But the other side of this harsh attack is the sentimental, populist Hernández, who loves love, gets all kinda gushy about the people, and virtually sinks his city rhythms in syrup. If love and truth are to win over a world of hatred and lies, let the victory be hard fought so that it has some genuine equivalency to the problems facing us in life. If David Hernández finds his way out of the dilemma of being “Chi-town brown” in the U.S. belly of the shark, if he never forgets that many of his brethren have not found their way, if those brethren are the real source and stuff of his work, could it be that in finding his way through writing, he has sometimes come to identify the writers or his white-Latin artist-art-consuming audience as his true brethren: “I come from a proud tribal-heritage of artists: The Word-Dealers,” he intones to his (sometimes mainly white) audience today. And he thanks his audience for making his performance and life work possible.
Has the bitterness in Despertando and Hernández’s Nosotros poems grown into complacence? Has Hernández mellowed too much? That would seem to be the conclusion one could reach in reading his little collection, Satin-City Lullaby (1987) or his Elvis collection (1995). But the total effect of a performance of his work belies any negative or nagging impression (even some of the Satin-City Lullaby poems come off as better than they seem on paper).
Most of Hernández’s major poems became available in Roof Top Piper (1991), an attractive publication that presents the poet as a Whitmanesque Rican bard whose traumatic slap by the Chicago wind opens his eyes to the forces sending Ricans and so many others to poverty, drugs, loss of security and identity itself. The poems are filled with humor, sentiment and hope.in what may turn out to be his definitive text portraying the ups and downs of Chicago Rican life. Much of the same material had come out on tape in their definitive performance form as Liquid Thoughts (1988). The tapes reveal that what really keeps his work alive is his capacity in performance in which his irony and his humor—not his indulgent sentimentalism, nor his anger, but that side of him that makes him and his listeners laugh at pain and ugliness. In one of his most disarming off-the-wall narrative poems, “Chicago Sun Times” (a poem he performs without accompaniment—in Liquid Thoughts, track 3) he tells of how he is tempted to rip-off a newspaper from a neighbor’s doorstep, but chooses not to do so, because he projects step-by-step, how the act could lead to a bitterness that culminates in world nuclear holocaust. Without any overt Latino or Puerto Rican referent, yet deeply rooted in Chicago lore, this poem speaks comically about an absurd, dread surreality in which one can take nothing for granted, in which uncalculating spontaneity has become impossible, and in which the worst things are ever-ready to happen. In such a world, the refuge of intimate love and the profession of such love in a poem become dangerous, unmodern, romantic, sentimental and unhip options. But they are the options open to this eminently Rican/Latino poet as he makes his way, twisting and turning through the years.
Hernández, David. Despertando. Chicago: Self-published. 1971.
Hernández, David. Collected Words for a Dusty Shelf. Chicago. Self-published. 1973.
Hernández, David. Satin-City Lullaby. Chicago: Self-published. 1987.
Hernández, David. Roof Top Piper. Chicago: Tía Chucha Press, 1991.
Hernández, David. Elvis Is Dead But At Least He’s Not Gaining Any Weight. Chicago. Self-published. 1995.
Hernández, David. The Urban Poems. Chicago: Fractal Edge Press. 2004.
Hernández, David and the Street Sounds. Liquid Thoughts (vol. 1), and Immigrants (vol. 2). Chicago: Street Sounds Poetry/Music Workshop, Inc. Cassette tapes. 1988.
Schmid, Julie M. “A MELUS Interview: David Hernandez, Chicagos Unofficial Poet Laureate.” In MELUS, Vol. 25, 2000
Zimmerman, Marc. “Defendieno lo suyo en el frío: Puerto Rican Poets in Chicago.” In Latino Studies Journal 1.3 (September, 1990): 39-58.
[i] The comments by Hernández stem from his written answers in 1985 to my questionnaire of the same year.
Marc Zimmerman. Professor Emeritus Latin American and Latino Studies (LALS), U. of Illinois at Chicago. World Cultures & Literatures-Modern & Classical Languages (WCL-MCL), U. of Houston. Director Global CASA/LACASA Books.
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