PapoletoJesús Papoleto Meléndez

Poet, Playwright, Griot

I am a proud Puerto Rican poet, playwright, educator and activist. My family migrated to this country from Puerto Rico and settled in El Barrio, East Harlem in the early 1950s. I was born and raised in New York City and became interested in the arts at an early age, going to the Boys’ Club to study acting and participating in team sports with my neighborhood friends. By the time I was 19 years old, during the heyday of the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movement, I was already writing poetry. I published my first poem, “Message To Urban Sightseers” in Talkin’ About Us (1969), and in a short period of time I published three volumes of poetry: Casting Long Shadows (1970), Have You Seen Liberation (1971), and Street Poetry & Other Poems (1972), that largely reflected the social and political issues of the day. For as long as I can remember, I always saw poetry as this powerfully potent weapon that tells truths, and while I sometimes become uncomfortable being labeled a “political” or “social” poet, much of everything I wrote at that time, was really a recording of what was going on in the world. I ultimately explored playwriting – the Boys Club showed us kids how to write and put on plays – and my play, “The Junkies Stole The Clock,” was eventually produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre’s Nuyorican Playwright’s Unit in April, 1974.

I’m often referred to as one of the “founders” of the Nuyorican Poets’ movement, but really it was about a group of Puerto Rican artists-activists coming together to make a difference in our communities, something of which I am very proud to have been a part of, but certainly does not wholly define me as a poet. Around this time, I also began teaching workshops, first through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, as a poetry-facilitator in the public schools, which is what I’ve done for over 30-years. When desktop publishing through the Apple Mac became available, I got involved with that as soon as I possibly could, using it not only to typeset and keep track of my poetry, but also to teach my students. I’m proud to say (if I do say so myself) that I am one of the first poets to do that, tie technology into the spoken word!

By 1980, I grew disillusioned by the politics of the city, and I left for the “greener pastures” of California where I continued to write in peace, perform, teach, and eventually published the poetry collection, Concertos On Market Street (1993). Concertos is kind of interesting, because I sort of merged my Nuyorican melodies with a Southern California sensibility, and the poetry is based on observations about life during a period of my homelessness, and sharing stories about myself, which was a really cool departure to the politically charged stuff that people usually associate me with. When I returned to New York in the mid-1990s, I found that I hadn’t wavered in my ideals at all, rather, I realized that there were ways I could use poetry to further my creative imagination and still be concerned about the world around me. As a first-generation Puerto Rican in the United States, I had travelled from El Barrio to discover this country called America, and then returned back home to tell about it.  I had discovered myself, and a willingness to share.

Over the years, I’ve performed at hundreds of venues, thousands of poetry readings, and I’ve appeared in film, television and radio programs. My work has been published in numerous magazines, journals, anthologies, and textbooks; and I’m proud to say that my work has also been taught in schools across the country. Through the offering of my creative writing workshops, I know that I have inspired the lives of thousands of young people – some of whom currently call themselves poets.

Right now, I’m working on some new collections, and putting together an omnibus of my earlier works. I continue to teach and work on community and poetry-based projects. To this end, I’ve devoted my entire life to poetry. I don’t consider myself a ‘spoken-word’ artist or a ‘writer’ – I identify myself exclusively as a poet. Why? Because being a poet is more than just writing verse, it’s a way of life, a way of living and being. Being a poet is living a life dedicated to humanity, the ability to empathize with someone else’s pain, and to tell their stories as your own.

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