Mickey Z. -- World News Trust
March 3, 2016
“i ask him: Are you going to the march?
and he says “I live here”
(from “Zuccotti Park, Oct. 10, 2011,” by Rich Alexandro)
Rich Alexandro and I connected thanks to Occupy Wall Street and almost immediately, we (two lifetime residents of Queens, New York) collaborated on an arts/activism project called “Meet Me at Zuccotti.”
The primary voice you hear in the video belongs to Rich and the lyrics are all his. He’s been writing poetry for almost as far back as he can remember and working as a security guard for the past decade or so has proven to be quite helpful in this pursuit. “The overnight shifts afford me the opportunity to do hours of reading and writing,” Rich explains.
From these graveyard shifts has risen Unfazed in the Teeth of a Microscope, his first book of poetry. Its varied subject matter includes romantic relationships, activism, mental illness, regret, and redemption. To mark the occasion, it was time for Rich and I to collaborate again… on the interview below!
Mickey Z.: I think you and I had some blue collar similarities in our early life. Playing stickball with the sound of Mr. Softee wafting down the block, before settling all the world's problems (or at least some sports argument) on a local stoop. But writing poetry? That wasn't exactly a path to popularity on the streets of Queens. How did you get started and why?
Rich Alexandro: My Mom was my #1 influence by far. My style remains reminiscent of hers -- I write short poems that are rarely longer than 20 lines, that are highly conversational and often contain humor, even if they are essentially serious. In school, I was influenced early on mostly by Frost and then Whitman. Even as a kid, a large part of my spirituality was tied into my love of Nature. I was highly impressed with Frost's endless Nature metaphors and themes. Whitman freed me up to write free verse… to write conversationally and confessionally. I loved his message of "I'm OK, You're OK" -- the idea that I'm friggin great but let me stop blowing my own horn because so are you. At some point, Maya Angelou joined the ranks of my top handful of favorite poets. Her themes of pride, self esteem and resilience resonated with me. I was a popular but self-doubting kind of kid. I ran with the cool crowd in elementary school but didn't really feel that cool at all. I was 12 when rap first hit and that was a huge influence on me.
MZ: How so?
RA: I connected with the early rappers' braggadocio, but sometimes (even still) the content is not as important to me as the sound of the rapper's voice, the sound of words and the way they're put together, and the flow. At this point, I was writing in the three forms that I continue to employ: rhyme (occasionally), free verse and rap. Some would disagree, but I consider rap to be poetry -- actually, a high form of poetry. It's impossible to quantify how much rap, especially old school rap, has informed my poetry, in all of its forms. The rapper who has influenced me most is Rakim, who debuted in 1986. His jazz-inflected flow was so ahead of its time that it just blew the minds of hip hop heads. No one puts words together like Rakim. He's active to this day. I'll be seeing him perform in a few months.
MZ: How have all varied these influences help you hone and refine your voice?
RA: Confessional poetry helped me express myself on paper when I was uncomfortable doing it in person. I was an angsty kid with a lot on my mind. I was the first-born child in my family and the first-born grandchild on my Dad's side. High expectations, loads of pressure. It strikes me that that's another reason I embraced the advent of rap -- early rap was about self-esteem and having fun. It took old white record executives to saturate the form with misogynistic, violent messages…. but I digress. Suffice to say that the best rap can be found underground. In my opinion, it has been this way for at least a good decade and a half.
So, poetry became my way of journalling and telling myself I was good enough, among other things. By the time I reached high school, I was regularly engaged in writing in those three forms. As a teenager, I wrote a whole lot of rap. When I hit my twenties, it was probably about equal output in each form.
MZ: When did you first begin to identify as an "activist"?
RA: I have a hard time calling myself an activist. I reserve that moniker for those who are really in the trenches, working day in and day out. I’ve done a few things I'd call acts of activism. The best examples I can think of are my writings, including the rap "Meet Me at Zuccotti" that we worked on together, and some things I've done in response to illegal and murderous policing. I think it's important to show up at marches and rallies for Trayvon Martin, Ramarley Graham, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and on and on -- not necessarily because it will result in policy change or convictions (though it slowly has) but because it is a strong show of support to the families of those who have been murdered by cops.
My recent activity has pretty much all been related to the Black Lives Matter movement. I was highly motivated by the suicide of 22-year-old Kalief Browder, who senselessly spent three years on Rikers Island, two of which were spent in solitary. He was never charged with a crime but kept imprisoned because his family was unable to make bail. He was beaten by guards and inmates alike and became depressive and suicidal while still at Rikers. It is an example of a story that the overwhelming population finds to be shocking and reprehensible but it is, in fact, quite common. There are always hundreds of teenagers and young 20-somethings imprisoned at Rikers solely because of their inability to pay bail. They are put in solitary confinement regularly and for very long periods of time. In Kalief Browder's case, he was considered to be of sound mind when he was locked up and because of the mistreatment he received, he acquired PTSD symptoms, was depressed and suicidal. He attempted suicide a number of times while at Rikers. He finally did kill himself and was found by his mother, last year. It hit me particularly hard because it represented an intersection of two causes that are very important to me -- the prison industrial complex and the disgusting treatment of people with mental illnesses, wherever it may occur. This includes the stigmatization and trivialization of those who have mental illnesses. This can happen outside or inside the home. It is particularly tragic when a mentally ill child is, in essence, disowned by a family that is either in denial or unwilling to deal with the situation. I have digressed again but I'm driven to talk about mental illness and suicide. I lost a couple of friends to suicide in the last six months. I think we can do a lot better as a society. I think some suicides are avoidable. I think there is a lot to be addressed and confronted with regard to mental illness. It is perhaps the last bastion of shame and in-the-closet repression in this country.
MZ: Have these revelations and experiences impacted your writing in terms of style and/or content? If so, in what way?
RA: Well, for example, I was compelled to write a poem about Kalief Browder. I compared his death to a lynching. Whether the murder takes place within a prison's walls or is sanctioned by the state or, as in this case, is delayed, they all result from the racist industrial prison complex policies. It is not that the system doesn't care about people of color, if you use a broader definition of the word "care." If you don't care about something or someone, it is likely that you will ignore it, him or her. This system doesn't ignore people of color. It has been devised with people of color in mind -- with their abuse, subjugation and death. It has taken me a while to wake up to the depth of insidiousness and ubiquity of racism in this country. If I ever do graduate to activist, it will be as a combatant of racism and its results.
MZ: Well, you’ve recently graduated to “published author!" Tell us about your book and how it came to be.
RA: I never aspired to be published. I never looked at it as a stamp of authenticity or a rite of passage. This was a true lightning bolt, a case of being in the right place at the right time. My regular open mic takes place in Long Island City, one of the Inspired Word venues. One of our regular hosts, Megan, had become friends with a sculptor, Oded Halahmy, who told Megan that he wanted to sponsor the publishing of 10 poets. Megan and Mike Geffner selected me as one of the 10. At first I mistakenly thought that it was going to be a compilation to which I'd contribute a handful of poems. It was quite a jolt to learn that I'd be getting my own book! It was exciting, but not particularly daunting, because at the age of 49, I have quite a collection of notebooks from which to cull material. I made the process much more difficult for myself when I decided to print the book in my own handwriting. That was quite time-consuming and I worried whether or not it would be a good look. I'm very happy with it. The joke between my brother and I is that I have always eschewed publication but have "somehow" known for several years that if I ever got published, I had a title and a print at the ready. I swear that publication was never a goal!
The contents of the book is about 60-70 short poems on very varied themes, including mental illness, injustice, love, New York and relationships. There is a poem about Zuccotti Park in there and a poem about a rat who sauntered over my foot one afternoon as I waited for the F train. As I said before, my poems are often 20-30 lines in length, conversational and confessional. I like to think I'm one part photographer because I often use "snapshots" to put the reader/listener into the poem. Physical description is very important to me. I think my main goals are to make my poems interesting, important in some way, and impactful. I like to elicit all sorts of reactions. Extra points if I can get someone to laugh or cry. If I can get both with one poem, that makes my day.
MZ: So, your public wants to know: What does the title “Unfazed in the Teeth of a Microscope” mean to you?
RA: "Unfazed in the Teeth of a Microscope" is an ideal state that I think we never reach but strive for. Personally, it references my upbringing and the pressure I felt from my parents and grandparents to make them proud, to achieve, to "be successful.” I wanted so much not to want their approval, not to feel as though I was performing, to try and determine my own natural proclivities, my likes and dislikes. To be that cool kid, unaffected by everything.
MZ: How can readers buy your book and/or see you perform?
RA: My book is currently available on Amazon. I'm told it will soon be available on Barnes&Noble.com. I perform at open mics sporadically, the primary one being an Inspired Word venue, Q4 in Long Island City. If anyone would like to sample some of my poetry before taking the plunge and buying the book, please feel free to become my Facebook friend. You can then peruse a few dozen poems in my notes.
Mickey Z. is the author of 13 books, most recently Occupy these Photos: NYC Activism Through a Radical Lens. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, you can “like” his Facebook page here and follow his blog here.