Willie Perdomo

Willie Perdomo

​"It inspires me when I see good writing from young people ... ."

This article appeared in the spring 2014 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

In March, Penguin Books published English Instructor Willie Perdomo’s third collection of poetry, The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon. Perdomo, who began teaching at the Academy last fall, is a Pushcart Prize nominee, a former recipient of the Woolrich Fellowship in Creative Writing at Columbia, and a two-time New York Foundation for the Arts Poetry Fellow. His first collection of poems, Where a Nickel Costs a Dime, is a finalist for the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award. His second book, Smoking Lovely, won a PEN Beyond Margins Award. Perdomo, a native of New York City who relocated to Exeter with his wife and son, recently sat down to discuss his new book, as well as the inspiration he finds in Harkness teaching.

Q: What prompted you to come to Exeter?

As a teacher, Exeter’s immediate appeal was the personal narrative as a source for both storytelling and literary analysis, and how it segues into the personal essay. The bonus was the Harkness table — the idea that students are responsible for their learning, for their analysis, and that instructors are not at the center of that experience. That’s very refreshing.

One of the things I really enjoy about teaching at Exeter is the collaboration and collegiality amongst the English faculty. Lesson plans and writing prompts are shared. Letters are respected and literature is taken seriously.

Poets, essayists, novelists and biographers are celebrated, invited to lecture, and the library has a whole room dedicated to poets. If you love writing, if you love teaching, if you love learning, if you love reading, then Exeter becomes an ideal environment to teach English.

Q: What has surprised you in terms of teaching at Exeter?

Well, I was kind of blindsided by how smart and talented my students are! I get really excited when I encounter a good personal narrative from a student. I’m always quick to share it or talk about it with my colleagues. It reinforces the feeling that I’m in the right place. It inspires me when I see good writing from young people or when a student who doesn’t say much at the table writes a narrative that is daring and explosive.

I also enjoy that moment when I see Harkness unfold in terms of the inquiry and dialogue that transpires at the table; how a close reading starts to unravel and gets unpacked. I have always put a high value on the notion that students should constantly try to explore ideas, to take risks with their ideas, to understand that when discussing literature, there’s no right or wrong; there’s limitless space to navigate for interpretation.

Q: What advice do you give students about their writing?

First, I think it’s important to affirm your narrative instinct. Second, you can’t write in a vacuum. Writing’s most trustworthy partner is reading. The other piece of advice is to proofread and be patient in the revision process. Take a moment after you finish a passage to see what cliché can be cleaned up with better description or figurative language; how your narrative voice is reflected in your commentary. The kids have 50 minutes of homework per class, five hours total, so it’s hard to tell them, "Look, if you want to improve your narrative/analytical skills, you have to read extensively," but I tell them that anyway! The idea of using literature as a model and as a path toward self-knowledge never grows old.

Willie Perdomo Book JacketQ: What is the origin story of your latest book, The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon?

The primary origin is my love of music. I grew up at the peak of the Latin salsa music era in New York City, so it was always in the background. My mother is the one who has really given me that love of music. When she shares tales about that era, she works herself into such an emotional recall that she starts to dance! She starts to exhibit the passion and exuberance of that specific memory. The book is a tribute to her recollection.

The sub-origin is my uncle who played professionally with The Cesta All-Stars, a ’70s descarga group. I never met my uncle, but I have always felt a close connection with him and to this day I can’t tell you why. I was in grad school when the germ for the book started—in terms of the actual writing process. As a prompt, I simply posed a question to my [dead] uncle: ‘What was it like that night you recorded with The Cesta All-Stars?’ And the book just exploded; Shorty Bon Bon’s voice poured out in streams. When I told [English Instructor] Todd Hearon about this moment, he suggested that I might’ve conjured my uncle’s legacy. And that’s what it was: a visitation that I was more than willing to honor.

I also wanted to try to play with different forms like partial sonnets—free-verse poems in conversational units with varying structures—and most importantly, I wanted to play with different voices. It was almost as if I was inside of a jam session, and there was more than one person playing. I was inspired by the ability of music to inform memory and to ignite all those unarticulated feelings. I felt as if I was a child again, in a social club, or in a living room with my musician uncles who just finished rehearsing and I had fallen asleep while the music set up residence in my unconscious.

It was a love letter to all the music that I grew up with, that took me a long time to appreciate, and that now I can’t go a day without listening to.

Q: How does Shorty Bon Bon differ from your two previous collections?

In terms of sonic scope, the book is broader. In terms of historical context, I think it’s more specific. There is a certain eagerness that younger writers have, and sometimes that eagerness goes unmediated. The biggest difference I think is how much patience I had with the book. As a younger writer, I didn’t have as much. A lot of the poems in Shorty Bon Bon have never been read out loud, whereas the poems in my previous collections had been and probably suffered as a result. These poems were written in a more meditative kind of context as opposed to a public performer/audience context.

Q: What writers or works were influential in your writing of Shorty Bon Bon?

One of my colleagues in the English Department, Matt Miller, who is also a poet, just shared a Chinese proverb with me that says, "He who reads 100 poets sounds like 100 poets; he who reads 1,000 poets sounds like himself." And I’m hoping there are a thousand poets in Shorty Bon Bon. There were some poets and sources that I always kept within reach: Berryman’s The Dream Songs; Dante’s Inferno; Audre Lorde’s Undersong; some ’60s poetry from the Guajana school, which was founded at the University of Puerto Rico. I became a Derek Walcott fan. I started reading for pleasure, the way one might listen to music. One of the things that struck me about reading Inferno was that while Dante is guided through a netherworld there are some figures that he gets to converse with, who are dead, but there are some who are able to actually talk back. That really struck me as a conceit for Shorty Bon Bon—that somehow my uncle could be both guide and interlocutor. I can only say that it was great to hear his voice.