In Bronx Museum's 'Spoken Word 101,' Classroom Chatter Is Encouraged

By Patrick Wall on June 2, 2012 8:50am 

Bobby Gonzalez, a Bronx storyteller and poet, will lead a series of free spoken word workshops this summer at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
Bobby Gonzalez, a Bronx storyteller and poet, will lead a series of free spoken word workshops this summer at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
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Marina Ortiz

CONCOURSE VILLAGE — Students with active vocal chords can put their talents to use in "Spoken Word 101" at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

The free three-part workshop that starts Sunday and continues in July and August, is part of a summer series of how-to classes offered by the museum and led by Bronx artists. Other courses focus on photography, screen acting and healthy cooking.

The spoken word classes will be facilitated by Bobby Gonzalez, a storyteller, poet and public speaker whose experiences growing up in the Melrose Houses in the South Bronx inspired pieces about identity and culture that he has performed in major venues in New York and at universities around the country.

“What I’m doing here is guiding the participants in the ins and outs of how to make an effective spoken word presentation,” said Gonzalez, 60, who now lives in Norwood.

Budding spoken word artists will learn how to cull arresting anecdotes from their lives; to use pacing, pausing and rhythm to entrance audiences; and how to develop a voice of their own.

“Like many artists, poets who start out imitate,” said Gonzalez, admitting that he mimicked other performers when he was first starting.

Another potential pitfall — stuttering.

“Oh, I stammered so badly,” Gonzalez said, noting that it took many painful performances before he settled into a confident, comprehensible stage voice.

One lesson Gonzalez will not be teaching is how to define a spoken word performance.

“Since spoken word is limitless, it can’t be defined,” he said. “Everything that issues forth from a person’s mouth is spoken word.”

At a storytelling event earlier this year, Gonzalez recounted his family history.

His parents migrated from Puerto Rico to New York in the late 1940s.

The family eventually settled in the Melrose Houses, at a time when the neighborhood was largely Italian and Polish and one of the public housing towers was reserved for white residents.

Gonzalez, who attended a Polish Catholic elementary school in the neighborhood, said he often had to fight his way through packs of Italian boys to reach his apartment after school.

In the 1970s, his father retired from a 25-year stint as a short-order cook in a Manhattan diner and bought a bodega across the street from the Melrose Houses. Though Gonzalez was already in his late 20s and traveling the country by then, he said he would often stop by the store and commune with customers.

“Every time I stepped behind the counter, I was in the limelight,” said Gonzalez. “It was almost a theatrical class.”

Gonzalez would go on to publish three books of poetry and tell stories — about his Native American roots, the history of Hispanics and the importance of finding one’s heritage — to audiences at Carnegie Hall and the Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village, as well as to students at universities in Texas, Alaska and North Dakota.

Though Gonzalez has done quite well as a professional performer of the spoken word, he said he won’t try to convince his workshop participants to attempt similar careers.

“I’m going to impress upon the poets not to quit their day jobs,” said Gonzalez. That is, “unless their names are Maya Angelou or Alice Walker.”

The spoken word workshops run from 1 to 2:30 p.m. on three Sundays — June 3, July 1 and August 5 — at the Bronx Museum of the Arts at 1040 Grand Concourse. Email Gonzalez at bronxtaino@aol.com to register.

The photography workshops will take place on the second Sunday of each month, and on fourth Sundays the acting classes will convene. The cooking classes happen on Saturdays. All run from 1 to 2:30 p.m.

For more details, contact the museum at (718) 681-6000.

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