Celebrating National Poetry Month: Jesús Papoleto Meléndez


I met Jesús Papoleto Meléndez in the early 1990s when he came to New York for a visit (from California) and ended up relocating here permanently. Born and raised in El Barrio, Papo was one of the original Nuyorican poets. His early and close collaboration with poets and writers such as Miguel Algarín, Sandra Maria Esteves, Miguel Piñero, Lois Elaine Griffith, Ntozake Shange, Tato Laviera and Pedro Pietri contributed to the founding of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which helped foster a fertile environment for an emerging generation of Puerto Rican writers, scholars and artists raised predominantly in New York. He is perhaps equally known for his friendship and collaboration with the poet Pedro Pietri and his sister, activist Carmen Pietri Diaz, which lasted until their deaths, 2004 and 2015, respectively.

With the publication of his first volumes of poetry, Casting Long Shadows (NY, 1970), Have You Seen Liberation (NY, 1971) and Street Poetry & Other Poems (Barlenmir House, 1972), Papo’s poetry emerged at the inception of the Nuyorican movement. His play, “The Junkies Stole The Clock,” (1974) was the first production of the NY Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theatre’s Nuyorican Playwright’s Unit. When I met Papo, he had just published Concertos On Market Street (1993), and I was working on a literary series at the Langston Hughes Library in Queens, New York, called “New American Writers of the 90s,” which I invited him to participate and subsequently, he introduced me to other writers, such as Louis Reyes Rivera. We hit it off and he became my collaborator of sorts when I began phati’tude Literary Magazine, and subsequently appeared and supported all of my phati’tude events, as well as appeared in every issue of the magazine (with the exception of the “Lavender Issue”).

When Papo first moved to his apartment in El Barrio (remarkably, the same apartment he grew up in), he showed me the books he published in the 1970s. I remember going through each book and commented how much his poetry was timeless in that how relevant the work was today as when he first wrote and published it. I made this pact with him that if I ever decided to publish books, I would like to republish these works as an omnibus collection. Fast forward to 2011, and having created the press in 2001 and sitting on it for ten years, I felt it was time to dive in and do something. In keeping my promise, I published ¡Hey Yo! ¡Yo Soy! 40 Years of Nuyorican Street Poetry, The Collected Works of Jesús Papoleto Meléndez (2012), and 2Leaf Press was born.

Ironically, I had access to translation interns from Hunter College from a previous project, and the idea hit me about doing his book as a bilingual edition. When I shared the idea with Papo, he concurred and we worked with a team of three translators: Adam Wier, Carolina Fung Feng, and Marjorie Gonzalez. Soon, the book grew into a cast of thousands, with myself and Kevin Tobar Pesantez as editors, with an introduction by Sandra Maria Esteves, a forward by Samuel Diaz Carrion and Carmen Pietri Diaz, a preface by Papo, an afterword and cover art by Jaime “Shaggy” Flores, which featured historical photos in the back of a book that would be over 300 pages.

Once the translation team worked on the preliminary translations, we met over the summer at Hunter College on Third and 119th Street with Papo, and went over each poem line-by-line to create as accurate a translation as possible. Some of the naysayers felt we were taking the “Puertoricanness” out of the poetry by not using as many Puerto Rican phrases as they would like, but the team agreed that our goal here was to make the Spanish translations accessible to all Spanish readers. So we met once a week in Hunter’s lobby with a table full of breakfast treats and snacks, and sat for almost eight hours per session working on phraseology, often tackling phrases that were not easily translatable. In the end, the book was reviewed by several Spanish speaking individuals (some native, some not, and from different countries), with a native Puerto Rican translator tweaking terms that Puerto Ricans would exclusively use, but would still be translatable to all Spanish readers.

The tour de force for this project was when Papo presented his book at the Puerto Rican Studies Association for Research Advocacy and Education, Inc. (PRSA) Conference at State University of New York (SUNY), Albany; and appeared at Hunter College (Lexington Avenue) at Dr. María Cornelio’s presentation (of the Department of Romance Languages, Spanish Department and point person for our interns) “Translating the Nuyorican Experience, A Panel Discussion featuring the translation team of Hey Yo! Yo Soy!”.

In putting this book together, both Papo and I grew: I grew as a publisher, and he grew as an artist. As one of the remaining original founders of the Nuyorican Poets’ Movement, I believe in the coming years that ¡Hey Yo! ¡Yo Soy! will become a permanent mainstay of Nuyorican literature.

—Gabrielle David