FPP speaks with poet LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs about the first voices that “broke [the] redundancy”, the nightlife days that nurtured her poetry, and her personal Harlem.
Reading the poems in your new book twERK I think of mother tongues and how they come to be, how there’s a constant metabolizing of influence as language is shared and created. Would you tell us about the first language in your ears, and the different voices that nurtured, or ruptured, the voice you have today?
The first language in my ears? I really don’t know which one (or ones) was that. That was a really long time ago. But voices, the ones I first heard or can vaguely remember were not sober. The first sober voice that broke that redundancy was Caribbean, high pitched and declarative. It belonged to my neighbors Miss Betty, Miss Josie (the candy storeowner) and the parents of my childhood friends Cathleen and Adíta. I did not “hear” their voices as a language yet. When I was allowed to go to the corner store by myself (mom was strict), the voice became Spanish. So the West Indian and Puerto Rican tongue ruptured the types of English I knew. It sounded better than Night Train English. Then Cherokee fell into the mix during high school. Dyslexia has its benefits I guess.
How did poetry become your medium of choice (if this is indeed the case)? How else do you feel called to express yourself in the world?
I was a cage dancer at The Palladium and The Building, homeless – a white boy set a fire in my closet in Harlem – and crashing in LES at a Swiss A&R who worked at Electra Records when I started writing “poems.” My first published writings were music reviews in Vibe, Ego Trip, Urb and The Source. I reviewed Hip Hop, dancehall, R&B, punk, etc. I got to interview some popular folks back then too. I also worked on a number of music videos and movies on both ends. The New Jack Swing era. I was still working in hot shorts around the time writing felt like an actual career. The security guards along with the lighting and sound techs at these nightclubs were my first cheerleaders. So there’s music, dance, and the unlikely that needs to be expressed. My poems have to have a beat that is relative to these experiences.
Multiple languages, codes, and ways of speaking are present in these poems. In your current or upcoming projects, do you anticipate the influence of other languages or genres, or feel the desire to experiment in new ways?
Well. I don’t want to jump the gun and chat about my latest chicken scratch. At present, I am sitting with my book and attempting to understand what I’ve (and Belladonna) just completed. It’s a foreign thing you know: the book. Understanding first that I am not a “scholar” and how I understand (or attempt to understand) codes and ways of speaking and linguistics comes from a lot of over hearing and imagination. I enjoy giving myself a headache. I write and translate and mistranslate until I get a headache. I love the tentative landscape of phrasebooks. They are never 100% accurate. Other languages? Yup. Which ones? Don’t know yet. I’m not really bored (nor want to be) with the ones the universe has chosen me to explore. There’s a lot more in their stories and sounds that I want to learn from. I feel obligated to them.
Do you remember the first time you felt electrified by a poem, or the poet who spoke the poem? Where were you, and what was that moment like?
A good friend, the poet, rap lyricist and Hip Hop producer Mike Ladd was my English Comp tutor back when I attended BMCC (Borough of Manhattan Community College). I was in a personal funk. He turned me on to Willie Perdomo’s Where a Nickel Costs a Dime. I read it in one night lying on the couch. The poem: “The Making of a Harlem Love Poem”. Thinking back, it’s all warm and fuzzy in a good way. I needed to read that poem that night. It made me want to write about Harlem. So for a moment, I wanted to write like Perdomo. I was closer to finding who I was as a writer when I later heard Edwin Torres at The Nuyorican Poets Cafe. He was for me the punk rocker I was called in junior high. The oddball. The third was definitely Sandra Maria Esteves. Later Louis Reyes Rivera. His work made me want to be a historian. Made a wrong turn during my time at NYU, graduated only to make a point, jumped ship on that idea and became a sideman working with rock and jazz bands. Found my way back to poetry touring.
When do you feel most “we”? When do you feel most “I”?
Most we: When I am writing in multiple languages. When I am dreaming in another language. When I am on the road as a sideman in a band setting. When I am an ensemble member in a theatre production. You have to be about “we” in these two universes. Otherwise, you ain’t a team player.
Most I: When my “I” is “i”.
When do you feel the strongest sense of belonging?
When does the “we” fall apart for you, for your communities?
When an upper middle/middle class population with absolutely no connection to Harlem’s past, not one inkling of what it means when long time residents of Harlem say “sweat equity” argue their “right” to kick out a community of drummers and musicians from Marcus Garvey Park.
When a crew of young Black/Latino men and women selling crack in my block (some I’ve known since they were babies) tell me that they have a right to sell on my stoop because they’ve grown up here and therefore, should not be judged. Call it reversed entitlement.
Tell us about your Harlem.
It is a Chinese Soul Food spot next door to Trumbone Funeral Home on St. Nicholas. It is $1 egg and cheese on white bread and Black American Muslims that eat pork sausages and Ox tails. It is the young Chinese women that don’t speak English but what might equate to a Pidgin servicing delivery truck drivers in the early morning. It is the old Black men from Honduras and the South who sit on milk crates playing numbers down the block and Haitians playing dominoes up the block. It is a single mother in 127 who always color coordinates, down to the nails and socks and hair accessories. It is the only white boy I knew to have lived in Foster Projects and make Duran Duran mix tapes. It is the Dominican Beauty Parlor that refused to cut my natural and the West African women who turn a vacant store front into a hair extension assembly line. It is Magic Johnson Theatre all day, any day. It is when girls use to fight over having the first child by some popular dude around the corner. It is present-day carpetbaggers and OG sock man-umbrella-blind man hustlers. It is when a kid named Bokeem and I (he lived between Adam Clayton and Frederick Douglas) tripped on acid in a vacant apartment before he went Hollywood. It is Harlem World where Conway is now. It is churches that control community boards and one bike lane in Central Harlem because of that. It is angel dust, Wild Irish Rose, reefer and a Ferris wheel on 111th on 3rd avenue. It is Taino Towers and the day a fire broke out in Schomburg Plaza. I know what blood on a pavement looks like after someone has leaped from the 33rd floor. It is the escape to 176th in the Bronx during the summers. It is Miss Betty’s husband shot dead in the lobby and T-Bone founding the Buccaneers motorcycle club, funding block parties, beating up his baby momma and getting shot in the head by one of his workers. It is everything I love and despise.
What do you miss about the Harlem of your childhood?
“Breaking night” and sneaking into the public pool on 110 in Central Park with a crew of Dominican skinheads (the irony!) from a club called Red Zone. Riding on the back of a scooter before they became hip.
What do you love about Harlem of 2013?
Given that I just discovered the Dominican Bodega at the corner of 110 and Lenox closed a week ago, this is not so easy to answer without being overly emotional. I wanted to cry this morning. Duncan Donuts, Subway and a “gourmet” deli is here. Everything about DD and Subway is processed. No freshly scrambled eggs. And within the first couple of months, DD already has one glass window shot out. The deli (I believe owned by Yemenites) and the way it is designed seems to attract folks that were a shy more policed in the Dominican spot. Some things are nice. I love overhearing what languages are appearing at my corner but it has made me hyper-aware of what languages are disappearing at the corner.
Have you ever been surprised by reactions to your poems?
Surprised by what people extrapolate from them.
What urgent advice would you give emerging poets?
Don’t take this shit too seriously. Seriously. Write because you love it. Don’t believe the hype of your first book having to be published right after you graduate. Live first. Get your heart broken more than three times. Get evicted. Be loyal but fuck up sometimes. Concern yourself with only those who believe in you. Go dancing. Learn to dance. Latin Quarters is five bucks before 7 and all the pros hang there. Party promoter Voodoo Ray does parties down in LES. Go dancing. Aside from that, create your community. What does it look like? How can you help other folks? Challenge yourself. In the words of Bill T. Jones: use yourself or you will be used. Always remember: dance.