On an unremarkable street corner in East Harlem, diagonal from a big gray battleship of new housing development, sits the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, which everyone calls the Centro. This fall, I went to the Centro to meet Rojo Robles, a student in the Latin American, Iberian, and Latino cultures department at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who had offered to show me the library where the archives are kept. We paused in a fluorescent-lit hallway to observe photos of leaders from the Puerto Rican diaspora, many of whose works are preserved at the Centro. Among them, mustache drooping over a smile, was Pedro Pietri, cofounder and poet laureate of the Nuyorican Movement in downtown Manhattan, who died in 2004—and whom Robles is studying. Together, we were visiting his collection.
These days, most people don’t remember Pietri. Not just a poet but a playwright and early performance artist, he spent the AIDS era hand-packaging his “condom poems”: bits of verse along with prophylactics in tiny manila envelopes, which he distributed during performances at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and other galleries, bars, and public spaces. Both artist and activist, he used his work to make the AIDS crisis visible while also providing protection to a community on the margins. As we reevaluate the horror and official inaction that surrounded the crisis, his actions are of particular interest. But they were ephemeral. The scraps that remain have been tucked away in the archives for decades.
Now, they are being revived. In November, Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative published text and images from the condom poems as part of a new series of chapbooks. For ten years, the poet and scholar Ammiel Alcalay and his students at the Graduate Center have been trawling the archives of mid-twentieth-century poets like Pietri. Each year, using the print shop in the basement, they work with a team at the Center for the Humanities to publish a selection of the strange treasures they find. “A lot of the writers we think we know, seventy or eighty percent of their work is still in the archives,” said Alcalay, a gentle, gray-maned eccentric who uncovers letters, lectures, syllabi, translations, and other marginalia. Without the work of his team, it might all remain buried.
Alcalay envisions his project as a subversive one. As Jacques Derrida noted in his formative 1995 essay “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” the keepers of an archive don’t just guard its physical security: “They have the power to interpret the archives.” Alcalay wants to undermine that power by reinterpreting the canon and the stories that surround it. Had he not uncovered Audre Lorde’s syllabi and classroom notes, we might have forgotten the astonishing fact that she taught race theory to aspiring cops at John Jay College in the seventies. And until his student Rowena Kennedy-Epstein looked, no one knew that the poet Muriel Rukeyser had kept an unpublished novel from 1937, topped with a rejection letter; today, that book is in print. There are dozens more examples.
Pietri is a case in point. Where mainstream American poetry is concerned, he is often “invisibilized,” as Robles puts it. Yet he is an important writer, one who made early entries into conceptual art as a means to advocate publicly for Nuyoricans, queer people, and downtown artists during one of the darkest and deadliest periods in New York City’s history.
“I feel like a mime,” Robles said as his white-gloved hands gingerly lifted a piece of sheet metal onto which Pietri had printed the maroon cover of a book called Invisible Poetry. I had thought we might enter a hangar-size storage area, like an FBI evidence warehouse, full of boxes to pick through. But instead we stood at a conference table piled with boxes in a cozy, carpeted room hung with art and photos of the Puerto Rican diaspora. Using an elaborate printed “finding aid,” Robles had preselected artifacts from among Pietri’s eighty-odd boxes of plays, manuscripts, flyers, paintings, photos, vinyl records, and what Robles calls “mutant gadgets,” since some of the works are uncategorizable handmade props.
Robles leafed through a manuscript called “Out of Order,” which Pietri had photocopied and distributed at readings but never published. The source for most of the condom poems, it contains thousands of short works that dissect the disordered and racially unequal New York City of the seventies and eighties. City officials had abandoned black and brown enclaves like Harlem and the Bronx, trash towered on the sidewalks, and heroin and crack ravaged whole neighborhoods. “New york new york / you are your own undertaker,” Pietri wrote. Some of these poems have been collected—City Lights Books published a selection of thirty poems in 2015, and an out-of-print 2001 Italian volume holds about 350 more—but most exist only at the Centro.
Pietri’s works are both morbid and playful. His preoccupation with the AIDS epidemic was a natural outgrowth of a poetics of grand metaphysical decline—his interest in the way we’re all dying all the time, some of us more so than others. “It’s raw,” said Robles of the collection, his dark eyes shining with contained excitement. “It’s sexual. It’s about drugs, it’s about alcohol, it’s about wayward lives, it’s about street life, it’s about difficult feelings, it’s about broken families. It’s about fun, as well.”
The manila packets of Pietri’s condom poems were smaller, and more pleasingly assembled, than I had imagined from a description alone. Some Pietri had hand-painted black with tiny gold insignia. Typewritten onto the back of each packet is a short poem in Spanish, English, or Italian, with warnings like “socializing can be fatal” and “Is no longer safe / to screw Every place,” and encouragements to “Masturbate slowly” instead. Though I looked through dozens, Robles told me there were likely thousands in the world.
Contained within these kinetic poems is Pietri’s attempt to protect his community, which was uniquely vulnerable to AIDS infection. As we spoke, Robles unfurled a banner, with ransom-note letters reading “CONDOMS & POEMS 4-SALE,” that Pietri displayed during readings. It was tattered and coffee-stained in places, and taped to it were handwritten notebook pages. Often, Pietri would improvise performances as the Reverend Pedro, his barefoot-prophet persona, tossing condoms from hand-painted suitcases that bore slogans like “UNDERTAKER POET.” When Robles carefully removed these suitcases from their Bubble Wrap chrysalides, they still smelled sharp, like paint and musty leather.
“The dynamic was always to emphasize the importance of safe sex,” said Robles. “For him, it wasn’t about moralizing. It was about protecting yourself from AIDS and other STDs.” In Robles’s introduction to the Lost & Found volume, he shares a story from Nuyorican poet María Teresa “Mariposa” Fernández, who recounts that she was a twenty-year-old freshman at New York University when she first saw Pietri perform. “He threw condoms at us, something our school administrators should have been doing,” she said. “I thought it was genius.” Filed carefully away in the archives, these artifacts are a monument to creative community action at a time when authorities stood mute in the face of suffering and death. “It’s documentation of a period of Nuyorican history that is, for the most part, erased,” said Robles.
The Lost & Found chapbook, Condom Poems 4 Sale One Size Fits All, contains a tight selection of thirty poems—enough to open a window into that little-known moment in history. In a special envelope, Alcalay’s team has reproduced personal photos and hand-painted performance flyers from the archive, including one of the Reverend Pedro laughing, standing barefoot before a “condom cross.”
The Pietri volume is part of the eighth series Lost & Found has published. Other new materials include notes from Diane di Prima’s lectures on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound as a “magical working”; Muriel Rukeyser’s translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, completed in the early thirties while she was a student and involved in the Scottsboro trial; newly translated excerpts from Argentinian exile Julio Cortázar’s little-known first book Imagen de John Keats, revealing a companionship between the poets; and the former Dominican nun Mary Norbert Körte’s 1967 response to Ghost Tantras, by Michael McClure.
Much of Alcalay’s output is as niche as this. For years, his academic community saw him as a “wacky poet” tinkering in the recesses of the Graduate Center, he told me. You can see why. His office is cluttered with books and posters and bags of papers; one pities his future executor. “I’m a lunatic,” he told me from behind a sagging pair of tortoiseshell eyeglasses. “I keep everything.”
More recently, though, the project has found a measure of legitimacy. It’s quietly influencing the field and finding its way into classrooms, books, and dissertations. In 2017, the Before Columbus Foundation presented Alcalay its American Book Award. Lost & Found also appears as an example in Jean-Christophe Cloutier’s new book Shadow Archives, which argues for the importance of archival research in historicizing African-American literature. And not long ago, another powerful endorsement reached Alcalay’s ears: shortly before Toni Morrison died, a mutual friend told him that the writer was an admirer of the project’s Toni Cade Bambara volume, “Realizing the Dream of a Black University,” & Other Writings.
Alcalay is fond of saying that Lost & Found is about relationships. By this, he means the unexpected ones among poets that his students uncover. The most obvious examples are in the surprising creative correspondences they publish, like that between Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn, or the odes, like Kathy Acker’s to Leroi Jones. “To me, it’s like fine weaving,” said Alcalay, of revealing these connections. “It’s like weaving this very complex pattern.” Doing so binds familiar figures together within an expanding creative fabric, pleasantly exposing the notion of the great solitary artist as a myth.
Pietri, too, was bound to better-known contemporaries, kindred downtown spirits like Baraka, Ishmael Reed, June Jordan, and Ntozake Shange. But the strongest connections that emerge from his archives are those he forged with his public. During his life, he nurtured the language and longings of a fiercely dedicated subculture. His poems abound with street talk, slang, informal conjugations. “That was the aesthetic proposal,” Robles told me. “He was validating Spanglish, he was validating the English that Puerto Ricans were speaking, he was validating Black English.” It was not for the academy, said Robles, it was for the people. It may be part of why he’s often ghettoized as a Latin American poet and overlooked in the canon. But it’s also why he served so aptly as a community advocate and provocateur.
A thrilling part of the new Lost & Found volume is that it extends Pietri’s public provocation. Its afterword, written by Cristina Pérez Díaz, the student who began the Pietri project before Robles took it over, is preserved in untranslated Spanish, like many of Pietri’s archived poems. “If you can’t read it, tough luck,” said Alcalay. “Learn some Spanish.”
After all, the archive—the existence of certain collections and the absence of others—is always a matter of politics. What gets chosen and surfaced depends wholly on who is doing the choosing. We tend to think of it as a rarefied space, the province of scholars and authorities. “The meaning of archive, its only meaning,” wrote Derrida, “comes to it from the Greek arkheion: initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded.”
But public archives are everywhere, in libraries across the country. Anyone can visit and decide what’s important, as I discovered at the Centro. Think, too, of all the uncommanded archives, in cluttered homes and offices. “Some stuff ends up in dumpsters,” said Alcalay. To his mind, Lost & Found is an invitation to non-scholars to join the process, to become editors and archivists themselves. “It’s creating a consciousness and awareness that these are the materials of our culture, and they’re going to disappear if we’re not vigilant.” He hopes some minor archons will think to rescue these materials—or maybe spirit them his way: “If you don’t take charge of your culture, who will?”
Michael Friedrich is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn who covers culture and social justice. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Nation, and The New Republic.