For José Montoya, David Henderson, and Pedro Pietri and
the first poetry reading I ever attended, Fall 1973
I wallowed in a needle-spawned world,
addicted to dope and the crazy life,
and yet there I was—in Berkeley
for my first poetry reading.
I was eighteen—with a bullet, as they say.
Earlier I had flown on a plane for the first time.
Sure I’ve survived half a dozen gun assaults,
cops knocking me around,
ODs, blades to my neck in jail cells,
homelessness in dank streets,
and beat downs in barrio brawls—but flying?
That scared me to death.
I sat there in a crowded café,
not knowing what to expect.
Poetry? I’d never heard this before.
Oh, I had written lines:
vignettes, images, fears, thoughts.
I didn’t know they were poems.
I had no idea what a poem was.
First up on the mic was José Montoya,
with Chicano prayers of old pachucos,
and strained loves and guitar solos,
and Indian hands in corn flour.
Then David Henderson took the stage,
gleaning urban black streets, racist stares,
Black Panther fury & Southern cooking.
Finally, Pedro Pietri came up—Nuyorican
word meister, flashing El Barrio’s experiences
with poems located in phone booths & real-life wisdoms
that made us laugh and shake our heads.
I had never heard words spoken this way,
more music than talk,
more fevered shapes than sentences,
more Che and Malcolm than Shakespeare.
These poems came for me,
lassoed my throat,
demanded my life’s savings,
taking me for a sunset ride.
These poems were graffiti scrawls
along the alleys & trash-strewn tunnels of my body,
the metaphoric methadone for the heroin hurling
through my bloodstream, the lifeline I already had inside
and didn’t know.
These poems were pool sticks, darkened gangways,
a swirl of sunrise after the graveyard shift,
a blood-black yelling behind torn curtains,
a child shrieking and nobody coming to help.
They were a woman’s scent after a night
of lovemaking, a sweet touch of hand to face,
cascades of hair on a pillow,
a moan during an elongated kiss.
These poems were shadowed intents,
startled doubts, sorrows without grief,
the moon without sky,
the falling inside that happens
when you push razor onto wrist.
They came for me as I sank into my suicide,
while fidgeting in a chair,
inching under the skin,
as I wondered why I even came.
José, David, and Pedro
—I was never the same after this.
They came for me and I’ve never let go.
They came for me and I’ve perspired poems
ever since. They came for me—and all my addictions,
my sorry-ass lies, my falling masks,
my pissed-off wives, neglected children,
angry friends, and back-to-back failures
could never, ever, take them away.