Willie Perdomo is an award-winning poet and author of children’s books. From Puerto Rico, he writes in a unique and refreshing voice, which has led to his becoming a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and winning a PEN/Open Book Award. We spoke with him in advance of the publication of his new collection, which is a book of poetry that warrants reading cover-to-cover.

Most recent book: The Crazy Bunch

Your book of poetry reads like a complete novel in poetic form. Was that the plan from the start, or did you write individual poems first and then later unify them into a narrative? Individual poems tend to live suspended until the right body comes along. Writing a novel or a memoir is of no appeal to me at the moment, but I’m hella interested in the novella. I feel like it’s the perfect form. When I filled out my author questionnaire, I said that I imagined the book to be a novella in verse. After a first read of the draft, my editor told me that the book needed a stronger narrative arc, so I spent almost a month in a California studio building an arc.

Do you make a distinction between poetry, spoken word and lyrics, or are they one and the same? Your poetry could be any of the above. Shit, I’m glad you noticed because some folks are bent on making the sharpest of delineations, so as to create a comfortable reading experience. Nah, I try not to enforce any distinctions at all. When you walk into my book, you walk into a free zone. I want my poetry to be any of the above.

How culturally and geographically-specific is your poetry? Do you feel it has a preferred audience or that it will translate easily to readers of any background or nationality? Very specific. With The Crazy Bunch, there was one brother who was asking for the book. His name is Baby Los. He was locked up in Sing Sing when the book’s opening lines arrived. Fortunately, Baby Los belonged to a crew of brothers that spoke the same language, so I had a few heads that were ready for the book or had been waiting for the book. I think TCB will be easily translatable to any reader who has experienced a coming of age moment and loves hip hop.

Name a scent, taste, or sound that you associate with your childhood. Cuchifrito joint on 125th&Lexington. Soon as you came out the northwest exit, all those fried patties and dumplings would be lined up like soldiers on display, welcoming you back home.

Where and what did you study? PS, 7, PS 96, Friends Seminary, Ithaca College, CCNY, Columbia University, Long Island University/Brooklyn. I was usually an English major. The plan was always to teach and write.

Where do you live and why? Exeter, New Hampshire. Because I teach at Phillip Exeter Academy.

Describe your morning routine. Isometrics, prepare coffee pot, shower, floss, water pick, scrape my tongue, Neti, brush teeth & gums, rinse with mouthwash, dry off, get dressed, a spritz of Creed, lotion, check the temperature, get dressed, listen to jazz while I do so, watch my wife sleep— the smell of my cologne or coffee will wake usually wake her, and we’ll say good morningor she’ll sleep through my whole routine. I’ll have coffee and toast, a quick notebook transcription, and then I go to work.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours? My oldest son likes to make fun of my throat-clearing cough.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing beginsDo you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow? I like to listen. In the silence, someone will always ask for a story. Someone will always ask you to remember. I’m more of a let-it-flow kind of writer; but the moment I hit a current, I become a bit more directive in my approach. 

What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on? Voice. The voice has to be distinct. I think about the first lines of some of my favorite books. Think of Edward Rivera’s Family Installments. First chapter, ‘Antecedents’.  The narrator says, ‘My paternal grandfather, Xavier F. Alegria, itinerant school-teacher, part-time painter, poetaster, guitar-picker, and Mariolater, jammed a small gun in his mouth and opened fire on his upper jaw’. 

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them. Some rituals are better left untold.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work spaceBesides the obvious, what do you keep on your deskWhat is the view from your favorite work space? My son’s school calendar, a photo booth WANTED strip of me and my son when he was in 6thgrade, a photo taken in an East Harlem office, May 1970 of a young East Harlemite holding a bundle of Palante, which was the Young Lords’ newspaper, a photo of Basquiat’s ‘Now’s The Time’, a Teresa Dictee Chee’s verse, a postcard of Muhammad Ali dodging a right lead, a photo of myself taking a photo of myself at the top of a water well in Cuba. All you can see is my silhouette in what looks like an aperture. That’s what I face when I write and work. But when I turn to my right, I see a small town in New Hampshire, complete with cupolas whose colors change depending on the light. When I turn to my left, I see my tsonduku.

Describe your evening routine. My evening routine is usually geared toward preparation and grading. At least an hour is devoted to pleasure reading. On weekends, I have some gin and work on new shit.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh? The Austin Powers character, Dirty Fat Bastard, singing, ‘I want my baby back baby back baby back’.

What is guaranteed to make you cry? When my children cry.

Do you have any superstitions? I hate when I brush broom bristle over my feet or when a hat lands on my bed, but that’s only because Drugstore Cowboy made such an impression. I sweep my study every Sunday morning and I don’t trip if mistakenly brush over my feet.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why? Billie Holiday. In my fantasy, I would hear her sing at Carnegie Hall, and recommend that we go hang out in El Barrio after hours. I know a spot, I would say.

What is your favorite snack? Organic seedless red grapes that have been frozen for 24 hours.

What phrase do you over-use? ‘Right on’.

What is the story behind the publication of your first book? I was 28 when my first book was published. I remember finding the title. I was in the Harlem 125thbranch of the New York Public Library. In the summers, I usually went to the library to cool off and read poetry anthologies. When I was working on my first book, I decided to title it Papo’s Poems. But I found a poem (‘Prime’) by Langston Hughes. The poem was in an Arnold Ardoff anthology. I had one of those thriller movie moments where the protagonist is looking at an important document and the text that breaks everything open is highlighted to the contrast of everything else in the protagonist’s vision, which is blacked out. ‘Uptown on Lenox Avenue/Where a nickel costs a dime’. Great moment, man. 

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had ‘made it’ as an author? First book. I was on St. Marks & 6th, across the street from the old B. Dalton’s, having a Papaya hotdog. There was a whole display window devoted to Where a Nickel Costs a Dime: one shelf that was just drenched in printed copies, a poster-sized rendition of ‘123rdSt. Rap’, a poster-sized rendition of my author photo, and I just chomped on my hotdog and stared at the window from across the street. I was there for as long as it takes to eat a hotdog in NYC and saw at least two people walk into the store after stopping by the display window. Most thanks for Clymenza Hawkins who used to design those windows.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day? Isometrics, vitamins, a toasted slice of Anadama bread with butter, Bustelo coffee, two hours of uninterrupted reading, 60 minutes of a notebook entry, lunch with my wife, FaceTime with my kids, preparing for the next day’s assignment, and a spontaneous combustion of lovemaking with my wife. That day rarely happens in sequence, Noah. But because it has happened, I can testify to it being a productive writing day. These days I would have to include a dip in the ocean.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event. I dropped an 1/8 of Blueberry on a university stage when I was 22 years old. Mike Tyler came to the stage after me and picked it up and made it part of his performance.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author? Read and don’t aspire.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone? I told my wife I’d like to be cremated and I’d like my ashes split between the 122nd-123rdand Lexington Avenue in East Harlem, and our sweet spot on the coast of Luquillo. Oh, and I would like a library named after me. I’d be satisfied with a wing in a library.

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising. That I’m a poet and that I’m a poet.

What is your next project? Depends who is asking. Right now, all I can tell you is that the first line in one of my plays is ‘Cookie Rojas’ and when that line came to me, I got so excited that I had to go the bathroom to take a leak.