The singers of décimas, or decimistas, are expected to perform like old blind bards on speed.
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One thing I learned was that Nationalist and pro-U.S. annexionist fervor could co-exist in the same people. Equally astounding was the fact that Puerto Ricans, known for thriving on American cars, American TV culture, and Salsa Incorporated, can also be attracted in hordes by a kind of Homeric poetry slam.
The Golden Age
One vendor sold new prints of old photoslike a man with rolled sleeves and a straw hat dragging a wounded man across a Ponce street in the 1937 massacre of Nationalists, and a bow-tied, pro-independence Albizu Campos in the boat that brought him home to Puerto Rico in 1947 after years in Atlanta's federal pen for trumped up U.S. charges.
We were half an hour early for the poetry finals, but by then the huge crowd had already filled all but a tiny space at the back of the green football-length field. We staked out our few inches, and in a peculiar tropical torture were roasted by a ferocious sun, soaked by sudden showers, and roasted again.
My only prior experience of the décima was in high school Spanish Lit. The class was studying el Siglo de Orothe Golden Ageand we were all forced to write a décima in the style of the long dead poet Espinel, ten lines of eight syllables, and an intricate rhyme scheme.
Until Puerto Rico, I'd never imagined that the archaic form had survived its 17th century flowering, and there were living, breathing, singing, practitioners all across the world from Spain to Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, even Louisiana, like fresh New World Jurassic Parks.
It all amounted to coming up with a Petrarchan sonnet to the tune of Turkey in the Straw in a couple of secondsincluding working in an obligatory last line of the chorus (pie forzado) that the judges give you on a scrap of paper just seconds before the first chord is struck. In other words the singers of décimas, or decimistas, are expected to perform like old blind bards on speed.
Points are knocked off for faulty rhyme schemes, meter, meaning, diction, intonation, lengthy intervals between verses, and whatever else the judges think of. Compared to this, the solitary hours of composition, memorization, and practice make a poetry slam at New York's Nuyorican Cafe seem like a cakewalk for cream puffs.
Chasing the Words
Reyes was like a young wolf chasing the words, or a hunter chasing the word wolves. Sometimes it seemed like the words were chasing him. He grabbed the microphone with disdain and howled into it in a high lonesome voice that reminded me of bluegrass.
A big attitude and a voice are not enough. The audience waited expectantly for each rhyme. He nailed every one. There was the chorus to get to. He arrived with flair. While the band played a quick interlude, young Reyes stalked the second verse. It was another crucial moment. Even a mediocre poet can manage one good verse, but the second is key. Do you have your teeth in the song, or does it have you?
Beyond the rhyme scheme and chorus, there is development and meaning. The best singers to that point had developed their thoughts like salt water taffy, pulling meaning both towards and away from the repeated chorus like masters of the villanelle.
We were shocked when the iconoclast Reyes seemed to ignore his first verse, going in a different direction entirely. We held our breaths. The structures began unraveling. He didn't end thoughts at the end of the proper lines. The rhymes jarred.
But the final chorus, in a dangerous straining leap, pulled it all together. I couldn't say exactly how. The audience found itself both dazzled and uneasy. In the space of three or four singers we had grown used to conventions. Reyes had wrenched them to the breaking point. The judges, after much murmuring, gave him the top prize for it.
The Last Word
Above all, they gave thanks to Puerto Rico herself for providing them the voice and the words. It seemed literally true. No matter what the chorus, all the décimas ended up being love songs to the emerald paradise, the gorgeous waning myth of Puerto Rico.
To see and hear a Puerto Rican décima.
For more information about the Bacardi Artisans Fair at Cataño (usually early December) call 787-788-1500. Or, if you must, try the slow-loading, frustrating Bacardi website. In English and Spanish.
For Philip "Felipe" Pasmanick's Antología de décimas. From Calderón de la Barca's "La vida es sueño" to Cuban rumbas. In Spanish.
For info about Joseph "Chelito" Campo, a celebrated Louisiana decimista, and the local décimas tradition. In English.
For the Nuyorican Poets Cafe online.
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