“The Crazy Bunch” Is a Poetry Collection About a 1990s Crew
Poet Willie Perdomo on translating a summer weekend in East Harlem into verse
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When I heard the New York City College of Technology planned to host a Willie Perdomo reading, I knew I had to attend. Perdomo is the author of numerous poetry collections and children’s books, including The Crazy Bunch and The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon. He’s received numerous honors, such as the International Latino Book Award and a PEN Beyond Margins Award.
Before I ever heard or read his work, I knew all about his poetry and impact on NYC’s literary scene. Perdomo, to me, is basically a poetry legend–having performed on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and at NYC’s Nuyorican Poets Cafe, spaces that value poets of color. In every poetry podcast or interview with writers of color, I can count on him being listed as an influence.
The Crazy Bunch is about an East Harlem crew during one summer weekend turned tragic. Perdomo revisits and recreates this 1990’s weekend with a strong narrative and the crew’s lingo, letting us non-East Harlem residents into a different world. A world full of joy, jokes, and tragedy. A world of looking out for one another, of trying to remember, and of trying to forget. The poetry collection explores being a member of a crew during the hip-hop era and how people of color often are—in attempting to remember—forced to face more trauma.
Arriel Vinson: What kind of crew was The Crazy Bunch, for readers who haven’t read the collection yet?
Willie Perdomo: It was a crew of us who grew up in the same neighborhood, we played baseball together, and over the years, we went to school together and basically grew up together in this neighborhood in East Harlem. Once the breakdance crews became popular, I think they evolved into more of a social club for those of us who did not break dance. So, all these crews suddenly started popping up as part of hip-hop culture in Manhattan and Harlem and Lower East Side and The Bronx and Queens and Brooklyn and so on. That’s the way it grew.
AV: How did this idea—to write about many summers ago in East Harlem—come to you? And how did you write East Harlem when you’re no longer there?
WP: The second question is what I’ve been reflecting on since the book was published a few weeks ago. How was I able to maintain the vernacular, the diction, without being outdated? East Harlem has always been my focus as a place to set poems. The time I write about in The Crazy Bunch is specific as its imagery. It helped that I had someone from the crew, from the old neighborhood, ask me to write about that time. I think the language performs concurrently with the memory.
AV: Tell me more about someone from the crew asking you to write about that time.
WP: It wasn’t a literal asking as much as it was the kind of otherworldly asking. That voice on the other side is not physically present, but it still presented itself in my consciousness at the end of a documentary film about the making of an iconic hip-hop album that highlighted the effects of living in a war zone basically (HBO’s Time is Illmatic). And at the end of the film, I wrote the first lines of “In the Face of What You Remember” as if it were someone asking me, “Yo, what are you gonna write about?” More specifically, “What are you going to write about that summer?” Again, it’s not a physical person asking. It’s just a kind of voice out there.
AV: Your collection takes place during the drug war/hip-hop era. How did you and The Crazy Bunch find joy during this time?
WP: Part of it has to do with the extent to which we thought the violence was normalized and how it was portrayed (sometimes romanticized) in the music of the era. The joy was found in those ineffable moments where our innocence was not compromised. Laughter is what held us together, I think. A sense of the sublime, too. Storytelling, most definitely. You could break night in front of a story.
AV: You said storytelling held you all (The Crazy Bunch) together. Do you think that in The Crazy Bunch you all are still being held together? As you wrote, did you believe you were doing the holding together?
WP: I suppose so. That’s a really good question. I think the role that storytelling plays as a bonding agent, is positive–in terms of the folks that have been coming to the readings, people from the old neighborhood, and how much excitement there was when there was a book out there called The Crazy Bunch. There’s this one little book out in the world that kind of ties everyone together. The poetic documentation is there.
AV: That’s great to know that even a poetry collection can bring a neighborhood together.
WP: Yeah, even if it’s just two people from that neighborhood. More importantly, from a neighborhood that no longer exists. It’s like those voices from that world are appearing.
AV: The first poem in the collection is a conversation with a cop, which most POC try to stay away from. Tell me more about your choice to explore these power dynamics and tell The Crazy Bunch’s story this way.
WP: The Poetry Cops are specific cops. They are poetry cops. They probe and interrogate as a way of triggering memory. But it’s interesting, right? How did Papo get to a point where he had to talk to a sanctioned body of poets? I became interested in the role of inquiry or photographs as a vehicle to spark a narrative.
AV: Though the collection reflects on an entire summer, the focal point is Josephine’s Sweet 16, which resulted in the loss of Nestor. What was it like reliving these moments of trauma? How did these memories come back to you so vividly?
WP: The memories were isolated in their own particular imagery. Yet, the imagery was supported by isolated reflective statements. As if the speaker, the You of the poem, was unafraid to offer commentary. He had seen enough to justify a reflection or two, no? I didn’t necessarily relive the moments as much as I reimagined an entirety of summers into a single weekend.
AV: You mentioned that you condensed an entirety of summers into a single weekend. What gets left out? What gets made new and created?
WP: The things that get left out are basically what you forgot, what you didn’t remember. I’m not sure there’s an intentionality in terms of leaving things out. As you are reliving this weekend, this is what you remember. In fact, this is what you remember in the face of remembering. To paraphrase the Langston line.
What gets recreated is the attempt at trying to tell the story. Sometimes you fall a little short because of the things you forgot. So, the beauty of it is that you keep attempting to tell the story. What makes it even more powerful is that there’s someone to step in—like Brother Lo, Phat Phil, Rosie, or any of the characters that pop up—to put their piece of the story into it. So then, it becomes a communal endeavor.
AV: I think that having those different characters lets the reader see the weekend from a lot of different views.
AV: Tell me more about the loss in this collection. It’s addressed, but unaddressed. The characters avoid giving true answers about the night of the Sweet 16, and the words “suicide” and “death” aren’t used often, if at all.
WP: We never call it what it is even if we are in an era of name-calling. Diseases always had pseudonyms. Like Monsters, Beast, That Thing… The characters do give true answers; they’re just not the answers you’d like. Telling someone what you saw implies that you’re really telling a story about what you didn’t see.
AV: Because this collection is set in an earlier era, it required you to use a different type of language, which also seems like a type of joy. Did this make the pain any easier to write? What was it like using slang/language you used to use?
WP: I’m not sure it’s as cathartic as the question implies. If you mean being free as a form of happiness–definitely. The language does not pander at all. The language is liberated.
AV: Often times, writers of color are asked to explain the words/language they’re using. But like you said, the language you use in this collection is liberating. Can you say more about this choice to use the language from these moments and make that language alive again?
WP: The ultimate power of living in a democracy is that you are able to use your language as you think, as a poet at least. That you should be in a position where the language doesn’t restrict you. In a book like this, it was so specific to its time and it was so specific to the memory, that once I caught hold of the diction, once I caught hold of the syntax, once I let the music of that era make its way into the way the stories were being relayed—I knew that I was sort of living in the book.
There’s a lot of language there. This is a whole ‘nother lexicon. Trying to do that and not feel like it’s corny or obsolete or outdated, that’s a challenge. Where you start to have the real, more intense conversations is when you start dropping the n-word. And that is when it gets a little tricky because you know, how much to use it and how much not to use it. And how to use it in a way that begs a level of authenticity even though it might not feel correct to the correct reader.
But once I sit down to start writing a book like this, and I start bleeping myself out, then there’s no use in writing the book. I think that’s a great question and I think it’s one that’s worth more conversation about what happens when you’re writing in a specific moment. You see really good movies of a certain period, and the language is always specific to that era.
And of course, there’s also the language of poetry. There’s also the reference to lines of great poems by Black and Latinx writers that have withstood the test of time. The draw is always of bringing multiple languages into one weekend, and seeing if they can really “exist together.”
By the time you get to the “Forget What You Saw” piece, the longest poem in the book, suddenly, after all the violence occurs, it shifts into this abstraction of language. You can’t really verbalize what you just saw. You’re trying to make sense of it!
AV: Right. That’s something I noticed as well. I was like, hmm, the language is still there but it’s changing.
WP: It’s changing. And as a result of the language changing while you are reading the book, that means the book is becoming a living thing.