“I’m the type of person who’s always looking for who’s not in the room,” says poet and educator Vincent Toro, a graduate of Rutgers University–Newark’s MFA program in creative writing who earned an undergraduate degree in English at Rutgers–New Brunswick.
When Toro’s mentor, Professor Rigoberto González, director of the Rutgers–Newark MFA program, tapped him to curate a virtual jazz and poetry performance for the City Verses program the university runs in collaboration with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), Toro LC’11, GSN’13 knew exactly what he wanted to create. He wanted to celebrate the interplay between jazz and poetry while paying tribute to the many little-known ways Black and Latinx struggles for equality are intertwined.
The resulting performance, “A Beautiful Bond,” which was filmed at NJPAC and Clement’s Place, a jazz lounge on the Rutgers–Newark campus, will stream free on Facebook Live at 7 p.m. November 8 as part of NJPAC’s TD James Moody Jazz Festival. “This idea had already been burning in me,” Toro says. “Because people know about Martin Luther King, but do they know of King’s relationship with Cesar Chavez? Black and brown people have been working together for centuries to build a better world.”
A second City Verses performance featuring Rutgers–Newark MFA alumni Sean Battle and Attorious Renee Augustin will be highlighted in person at the Moody Festival. “Represent: A Night of Hip Hop, Jazz, and Spoken Word,” at NJPAC’s Prudential Hall at 8 p.m. Saturday, November 19, features a who’s who of the literary world and the hip hop scene, including hip hop artists Black Thought of The Roots, Speech of Arrested Development, and Chuck D of Public Enemy, as well as poets and spoken word performers Nikki Giovanni and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. Battle SAS’11, GSN’13 will be part of that performance, while Augustin GSN’22 will be among the featured poets at “Up Next!” a celebration of the work of younger writers immediately afterward.
These high-profile performances are just two elements of the multifaceted City Verses project, which launched in 2019 with a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Rutgers–Newark and NJPAC collaboration has focused not only on elevating the profile of jazz poetry—a genre pioneered by literary giants of the Harlem Renaissance like Langston Hughes and expanded on by poets like Newark’s Amiri Baraka, a Beat poet and father of the Black Arts movement—but on offering a broad platform for writers from across the Greater Newark community to share their work. The program encompasses high school residences, a summer camp for teen poets and musicians, virtual and in-person poetry readings and workshops open to the public, and performances incorporating spoken word and jazz.
Rutgers–Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor praised the program’s impact. “City Verses is a quintessential collaboration among anchor institutions—Rutgers–Newark and NJPAC—and the thriving community of artists in our city that fuses two of Newark’s greatest cultural traditions: jazz and poetry,” Cantor says. “With pivotal support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we’ve been able to leverage those traditions at a crucible moment for our nation, when we need to amplify diverse voices telling their truths.”
‘A Beautiful Bond’
Many City Verses performances have addressed the struggle for social justice. Still, Toro’s “A Beautiful Bond” is unique in its focus on the connection between two branches of the fight for equality. “That building of bridges between the two movements has always been important to me,” says Toro, an award-winning playwright and poet now an assistant professor of English at Rider University. “My first two books are about my Latinx and Puerto Rican identity—that’s hybrid, that’s multivalent. Latinx people are always negotiating our many identities.”
Between poems and musical interludes in the performance, Toro and cohost/co-curator Christian McBride, an eight-time Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist, offer a masterclass on the history of Black and Latinx activists joining forces, reading from sources including King’s correspondence with Chavez (“Our separate struggles are really one— a struggle for freedom, for dignity and humanity,” King wrote to Chavez) and Angela Davis’ interviews in which she lauded the Chicano community in San Jose that rallied to her defense when she was charged with conspiracy in the 1970s. After its premiere on November 8, Externalthe performance recording will remain available online.
Students and Alumni Integral to City Verses
Since it launched three years ago, many students and graduates of Rutgers–Newark’s MFA program have facilitated and taught in the City Verses program, working with the jazz faculty at NJPAC to create a new curriculum for teaching jazz poetry to teens in the Greater Newark area. Newark native and poet Dimitri Reyes SASN’16, GSN’18 created and taught some of the earliest classes. “We had to think of the poetry as another form of musical accompaniment, like a vocalist,” Reyes says. “But once we got to the point where the saxophonist could understand enjambment, or the structure of a sonnet—and that was the fun part, just jamming and figuring it out—then we could find a way for the students to understand.”
Shan Pulusan GSN’22 also taught at the City Verses summer camps. “We looked at fundamental elements of music—rhythm, melody, harmony—and asked: How can we insert harmony into our poems?” she says, adding that the workshops emphasized the work of writers of color, LGBTQIA+ writers, and local authors. “Instead of looking at jazz poetry only as this established thing—although there is a bibliography—we looked at the work of contemporary poets and broke down and analyzed what elements of musicality they were using.”
After earning his MFA at Rutgers–Newark, Battle founded EvoluCulture, a media and performing arts organization in Newark that hosts one of the city’s longest-running open mic series. It now cohosts workshops and readings with City Verses, and Battle has been a visiting poet at City Verses classes for teens. “City Verses has both boosted the programs that are already here in Newark and given space for young ones to develop their work,” Battle says.