One cannot deny the sheer artistic prowess of Sami Miranda and his debut collection, We Is. As a multidisciplinary artist, educator, Program Manager/ Curator and Board Member of the non-profit institution, The American Poetry Museum, it is no question that this book would mirror how Miranda uniquely functions in the world. Given all his involvements in various communities, some may ask where the poet would find the time to write such a collection. But those questions are answered when readers perceive these poems as a careful culmination of many recalled memories and histories of those souls who have made an impression on Miranda.
A testament to a life still living, We Is speaks plainly while communicating with elements of the musical and visual arts. And he is onto something. Many who appreciate poetry and partake in poetry events may criticize the current state of poetry bookshelves at their local Barnes and Noble, because the store’s already sparse inventory is laden with a slew of authors who have received critical acclaim via their social media follow counts. Nonetheless, one cannot deny their work’s connection to the general public, and that has to do with the quick energy and easily digestible diction that often includes the accompaniment of sound and colorful or moving images. In many ways, We Is holds court between what is working for the social media poets and those in the more traditional literary sphere.
Essentially, this collection is a jazz album on the page. Whether the reader would find We Is in a Bebop, Salsa, or Bolero playlist depends upon what page they decided to flip to in the book. Regardless, it is as if every letter in this collection is a musical note where every word is a melody that tells us who we is. This can be metaphorized in the poem, “Three Lessons Lawrence Wheatley Dropped on Spanish Joe.” The poem recalls Wheatley, arguably one of Washington D.C.’s most prominent underground jazz musicians of his time:
My fingers may play an out-of-tune-piano,
but my ears always hear the perfect note,
not the notes you hear coming from
an out-of-tune piano.
This is to say, Miranda is teaching his reader how to read these poems. Like a Neo-Expressionist painting, this collection does not claim perfection through divine symmetry, but comes to terms with the elusiveness of perfection within the beauty of imperfection. Akin to the jazz musician who is ever the student of their craft, Miranda speaks for the writers who themselves are in a constant state of searching. This tells his audience that musicians and poets are one in the same— creatives on the never-ending journey of explaining what it is to be fully realized. The complication of being fully realized is stretched further when poems featuring the speaker, Lawrence Wheatley, Spanish Joe, or other guests explain the methods in which they choose to navigate their explorations as artists of color. This can be highlighted in “Looking for my Citizenship,” which revolves around the unsurety of space, geography, lineage, culture, and identity.
When I am unsure of who I am
I pick up my dominoes
and search out el reverendo
so we can pray for clarity.
I find him in front of the botánica.
We slam the bones
onto a card table,
become domino table,
become seat of divination.
What is poignant about Miranda’s first book is the way in which he chooses to address who he is. When the speaker checks in with each of his identifiers—whether they are friends, family, places, famous people, or spirits—the speaker is reassuring himself that he is real. The voice is always careful as he wrestles with the complexities of discovery and identification brought to life because of how knowledgeable the speaker is regarding the world around him. Like every syncopated Bachata hip swinging from left to right, there is a mingling duality in every poem that comes in the form of Miranda’s billingualism.
To that effect, We Is not only expands the vocabulary of each poem, but also illustrates just how in tune Miranda is with the world around him. Instead of having a first book of self-discovery, we end up becoming his literal audience as the speaker takes us through specific vignettes of a life already fully realized. Miranda not only aims to speak his(s)tory, he is also helping us understand who we is. Brought in by Miranda as a familiar, the reader cannot is immersed in the Puerto Ricanness, as well as the humanity, of this book: that is, how identity is a state of mind, no matter where one resides, and that Puerto Ricans, like any other ethnicity, are an all-encompassing people,
“Where are you headed?”
my friends ask.
A state of mind,
where plena always welcomes my rescue
banging out the news
from el barrio, o Loisaida o el Bronx.
All places I run to, from, then back again
Sami Miranda is a part of an unprecedented time in Latinx literature as a poeta Boricua. Naomi Ayala mentions, “His poems depict rhythms reminiscent of New York City, yet they are also uniquely [Washington] D.C. and uniquely Boricua. They invite you to move, breathe in, and come a little closer to be wrapped up in their sensory dance.” His work is helping to usher in the new voices of what is the Neo-Nuyorican which is one part urbanization, one part island, one part assimilation, and one part performative while being conscientious of a larger worldview. In the evolved form of our Nuyorican predecessors, Miranda’s poetry is a model to this style that encompasses a resounding amount of music, history, and legacy while standing on the shoulders of gigantes of a movement before him.
Dimitri Reyes is a Puerto Rican multidisciplinary artist, content creator, organizer, and educator from Newark, New Jersey. He has organized large-scale poetry events such as #PoetsforPuertoRicoNewark and read at venues such as The Dodge Poetry Festival, Split This Rock, Busboys and Poets, and the American Poetry Museum. Dimitri’s forthcoming book, Every First and Fifteenth, is the winner of the Digging Press 2020 Chapbook Award, and some of his other work is published or forthcoming in Vinyl, Kweli, Entropy, Duende, Cosmonauts, Obsidian, and Acentos. He is an Artist-in-Residence with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Learn more about Dimitri by visiting his website at https://www.dimitrireyespoet.com/