In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 153.
At the 2022 Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey, poet Willie Perdomo spoke to teachers about the importance of being in tune with the language their students bring into the classroom. I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist is that recognizing students’ language validates their experience. Perdomo is uniquely positioned to speak on this subject. He has taught writing workshops and retreats for years. His poetry continues to give countless poets permission, myself included, to speak in their own specific dialect to tell the story of where they come from.
For a poet, finding her voice and the language of her world is imperative. I’m constantly searching for the reassurance I get from the vernacular of my place and time: the streets I grew up on, the music I listened to, and the people I dialogued or “rapped” with daily. I find comfort in the often-problematic lyrics of most 1990s hip hop music—not the misogyny or the glorified violence, but the hustle-and-grind lexicon of the culture back then, and the creativity intertwined with braggadocio. The reaffirming element of slang, signifying, and other vernacular devices resonated with me, the child of hardworking immigrants, and gave my life a soundtrack that helped me make sense of the world.
If hip hop was the soundtrack, then Perdomo’s poetic voice served as narrator—like Morgan Freeman and shit. See that, the “and shit?” Isn’t that familiar? Don’t you recognize that, connect to that? That’s vernacular currency. In an interview in the Common, Perdomo states: “The more specific the language, the more liberated the speaker.”
In “That’s My Heart Right There”—a ghazal from his poetry collection The Crazy Bunch (Penguin Books, 2019)—Perdomo uses the vernacular phrase “that’s my heart right there” to communicate the depths of love one character in the book, Skinicky, feels for another, Josephine. In the poem, “my heart” has various meanings: a person or object that literally keeps the speaker alive, gives their life meaning, or elicits joy. Yet “my heart” can also be the cause of heartache, melancolía, suffering, or other painful feelings. The phrase “right there” is epistrophe or epiphora, a phrase repeated at the end of a line to signify immediacy. It exhorts, rallies, and—to use a cliché—delivers a point: that one, right there, that specific person, inhabiting that or this specific space, inside me and my life.
If vernacular is the dialect spoken by ordinary people, then the repetition and the frankness of “That’s My Heart Right There” can touch a wide, unpretentious audience. Yet vernacular can be vulgar. “Sucker for Love Ass Ni**a”—also from The Crazy Bunch—makes excellent use of vulgar vernacular as the poem’s speaker playfully mocks Skinicky for getting caught up in unrequited love for Josephine. Divided into four parts, the poem mashes up formal poetic devices—such as anaphora, syllabics, and a regular rhyme scheme—with informal vocabulary, including the “n-word” and “jimbrowski,” which is a late-1980s slang term for penis or sex. The poem begins with the tercet:
Jimbrowski ass ni**a
That sucker for love ass ni**a
Here the speaker is chiding Skinicky for not only being a hopeless romantic, but also for chasing sex. In the next three four-line stanzas the speaker defines and redefines the kind of love Skinicky is a sucker for: “The love that curses & sweats,” as Perdomo puts it in one stanza.
In the third part of the poem, Josephine enters, and we learn that she does not suffer fools. Skinicky’s idea of love is suffocating, and Josephine cherishes her autonomy. For her, love doesn’t mean shackles, and it definitely doesn’t mean sappy and mushy feelings.
That night, Skinicky had the nerve to pull out his black
In all of her waking language, Josephine needed to be free. She
put her hand up like a crossing guard. Wait up, she said.
There you go. Already putting shit in the game.
Josephine’s lack of sentimentality is only underscored by her use of the vulgar vernacular phrase “putting shit in the game.”
The final part of the poem finds Skinicky thoroughly dismissed and morose. His idealized and stylized love isn’t real enough for Josephine, and the poem ends on a powerful note:
Two couplets later, Skinicky was back on the Block heading
straight toward the Age of Fuck It, and it was true then, as
it is now, that there were only a few of us holding the street
down with our hearts.
By the “Age of Fuck It,” the speaker means diving headlong into self-destruction. The phrase makes the last revelation, that Skinicky was among the few with “hearts,” all the more moving.
As a poet, I strive to capture not just the way people talk in general, but specifically how my people talk. The Crazy Bunch, and Perdomo’s body of work overall, are full of the living breathing energy of vernacular language that helps guide me.
Roberto Carlos Garcia is the author of several books, including What Can I Tell You?: Selected Poems (FlowerSong Press, 2022) and Traveling Freely, an essay collection forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in 2024. He is the founder of Get Fresh Books Publishing, a literary nonprofit.Art: Sandra Grunewald