For longtime friends of National Sawdust, Roger Bonair-Agard needs no introduction – he’s been a vital part of the family for years now, not least as a founder of the groundbreaking multi-disciplinary ensemble VisionIntoArt. A widely celebrated poet and writer in residence at National Sawdust, Bonair-Agard has published three full-length collections of poetry – tarnish and masquerade (Cypher Books, 2006), GULLY (Cypher Books, Peepal Tree Press, 2010), and Bury My Clothes (Haymarket Books, 2013) – and the chapbook In Case you Wake up in the morning and you’re not in Brooklyn – Chicago poems (New School Poetics, 2012).
A two-time National Poetry Slam champion, Bonair-Agard has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and is a compelling performer in a wide variety of settings. Here’s one example we’re especially fond of:
On Nov. 10, Bonair-Agard will celebrate the arrival of his newest book, Where Brooklyn At? (Willow Books/Aquarius Press, 2016), with a reading at National Sawdust presented in collaboration with The Baldwin Protocols, an arts-based intervention and reading series that he created. The new book, he explains in the foreword, is “something of a manifesto. It is certainly also — if a thing can be both — a protest song. It recognizes exodus and rails against the forces that move people before people want to move.”
Marking the book’s arrival, and with Roger’s blessing, we’re proud to share some of the poems included therein.
The bike shop used to be a bodega. The liquor store used to be a pizza parlor. This café used to be an Italian restaurant. That kiosk used to be Joe, an old man on a little stool. The yoga studio used to be a butcher’s. The bar with jars of MandMs on the counter used to be a candy store. This park used to be a park — with crack vials and pot holes on the running track, and dirt in the center of the field where grass should be. And that dog run was a field of geraniums. The Dominican restaurant used to be cheap. Used to have a line out the door. I used to be able to afford to live above it and come down in the middle of the night and get half a chicken and a Heineken, especially after my girl left and I was tired staring at the linoleum and the sloping doors. The organic market used to be a sneaker store. Kim’s grocery used to sell 40s. This subway stop used to be dangerous. Used to be able to buy crack here; right here. This coffee shop used to be a law office, run by Mr. Jenkins who chain smoked Newports whose family came from North Carolina in 1950. That sushi bar used to be the Jamaican spot. They sold patties, hard dough bread and the best sea moss. Those condos used to be a three-family house. I loved a woman who lived there. She cooked steaming pots of rice and fish broth and coo-coo and dumplings and stocked the fridge with Guinness when I came calling.
The bank used to be a quinciñera shop. The barber shop used to be your Papa’s house and was once overrun by rats. We filled in the spaces between the steps leading down to what used to be the storage room, but was your Papa’s floor. We clubbed the rats when we saw them. They screamed like children. The library used to be the library but no one from the projects round the corner goes there anymore. Saturdays used to be the Central American League where they wouldn’t pass the ball to your Papa or your Uncle Cyril — the pool used to be empty. The Thai joint used to be the OTB and every morning, Joe, the old man on the stool walked there slowly, leaning on his cane, spent 50 cents for coffee in those blue and white coffee cups, and placed two 2dollar bets and went back to his stool and called out to me Hey young fella and told me how it used to be. Coffee used to be 50 cents, Nina.
Beat cops used to be in squad cars. They weren’t always so polite. Biggie used to freestyle right over there on that corner, and Jay-Z came up right over here by Marcy, and Big Daddy Kane once played a block party here on Marcus Garvey, and your father used to be slim and ran these courts on Macon and Malcolm X. The New Casablanca bar and lounge used to be for old black people. Old Black people used to be able to afford this corner. This garden used to be a drum circle before the new neighbors called the cops to complain. Stuyvesant Heights used to be Bed Stuy — that family with the stroller used to be black. Those young people on the stoop over there used to be black and Puerto Rican and arrested for being on the stoop. That school used to be public. This used to be Brooklyn. They used to be scared to come here. They used to be sorry for us that we had to live here. It was a look like pity, like scorn. It looked like this corner and these bricks and this stoop. Brooklyn was what they left when they ran. Brooklyn used to be black, Nina. I swear to you. This used to be Brooklyn.
1110 Fulton Street / Bedford-Stuyvesant 1989 / a pre-gentrify ekphrastic
…jewels and all dat / the clothes was all dat you think you steppin to me / that’s where you take your fall at.
— Notorious B.I.G. (freestyle at 1110 Fulton)
See here — this corner bodega is where Biggie
dropped freestyle bombs before anyone knew
he was the Greatest Of All Time, before the police
started smiling at residents, before this bodega
started selling soy milk and organic toilet paper,
before it was a yoga studio before the blood
was scrubbed with lye and rock
salt off the sidewalk by the fallen boy’s mother
before we paraded Biggie’s coffin aloft through
the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant the livest one
before beef with Pac, before white youth got
so goddamned brave enough to even ride the train
into Brooklyn, before slumlords fixed the toilets
and cleaned the lobbies and got rid of the rats
and didn’t come to the building with thugs
to collect the rent, before Giuliani, even
before Manhattan got too expensive and chased
artists south who believed they were
the first artists ever to come here, because
that’s always how white people Columbus
before the bodega let you come into the store
to buy 25 cent loosies in the middle of the night
and sold them to you through a bullet-proof turnstile
at eye-level from the street, before anyone
asked me for a credit check to rent a studio
they fixed the C/Shuttle stop at Franklin
and Fulton, before the end of crack or the Reagan
era, before Amadou Diallo and Dumbo
and Palladium was still there and Tyson champ
and NWA still together, and Left-Eye
still alive and they hadn’t cleaned the vials
off the field we played on in Saturday leagues
even though families were there, and children
were being raised and the people demanded
good food and were ignored and were sent
patrol cars rolling their neighborhoods slow
and no one was so goddamned proud of themselves
because they planted a community garden and called
the cops on their neighbors with noise complaints
and boasted about the great West Indian food
and complained about how hard it was to find
tofu, but the people here are so real, they said, and so alive, it was great to live here before everybody decided to come.
Where Brooklyn at?
Dumbo to Coney Island
Red Hook to Cypress Hills
Brooklyn at Saturday afternoon in summer
police execution on the corner of Church and Nostrand.
Brooklyn at Labor Day parade wine dong
on Ocean Avenue back when we had less
police than masqueraders and no one
got shot. Brooklyn at Russian league football
at Red Hook. Brooklyn at the boardwalk
because… the Ocean — and this is where the sun
is largest, where there is still room
to pray. Brooklyn at Barbey and Broadway
9mm to dome. Watch took, $11 gone, you’re cool
as the midnight itself, until you get home
collapse, cry inside the door. Brooklyn
at The Cellar on a Friday night DeKalb Av
crowd heads dipping in uni ed downbeat
until the adhan of A Tribe Called Quest
gets everyone facing the booth and hollerin I left my wallet in El Segundo. The tallest
sister there stares you down for the next
groove. You spend the night with your forehead
against her ear her wide mouth thick at your neck.
Brooklyn at running outside in December sleet
to the corner phone booth cuz your homegirl
paged you, and said let’s go to this poetry
reading and you’re good with being lost
so you say fuck that I’m watching ESPN
but she screams at your ear. So you go.
Brooklyn at the abandoned Greenpoint
loft where you sit in old church pews
and hear the gospel of a kind of verse
you recognize. Brooklyn at where your life
begins to be saved again. Brooklyn at Biggie’s
coffin aloft in the streets. Brooklyn at Junior’s
cheesecake. Brooklyn at beef patty & coco bread
on every block. Brooklyn at the call to prayer
on Friday evening leaving out the mosque
at Fulton and Bedford and floating toward
Fort Greene. Brooklyn at Williamsburg — Bedford
and North 7th, 1989 — ghost town. Brooklyn at
why that shit is funny now. Brooklyn at Los Primos
yucca, mangu y queso frito for breakfast 3 times
a week. Brooklyn at the best Dominican spot
in the city is right under my apartment. Brooklyn
at the landlords say the apartment is gone
when they see my black face. Brooklyn
at the landlords who let me stay
for seven years with no rent increase
in East Williamsburg. Brooklyn
at the windows I smash. Brooklyn
at the gun I stash in my waist twice
before going out into the hot Bushwick night.
Brooklyn at the full moon on my dome.
Brooklyn at the prayer I offer for every black
boy I walk by until I get home.
All poems copyright 2016 Roger Bonair-Agard, used with permission. Bonair-Agard celebrates the release of Where Brooklyn At? at National Sawdust on Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. (doors 6 p.m.); www.nationalsawdust.org.