We may think there’s only one way to consume poetry — but this local poet is turning traditional creative expression onto its head. Benedicto Figueroa is a poet performer who held a long tenure as Union City’s official Poet Laureate before pursuing connections within the creative community of Jersey City. The community he has found and built here centers largely around the vibrant SMUSH Gallery, where he is co-artistic director with Katelyn Halpern. Benedicto’s immersive art and poetry exhibition, Are You There, is now open to the public at SMUSH, located at 340 Summit Avenue in Jersey City, from November 4th – December 2nd. This one-of-a-kind interactive exhibit weaves Benedicto’s poetry into all different mediums with which onlookers can engage — such as old cassette tapes, TVs, phones, posters, and more. Read on to learn more about poet Benedicto Figueroa, as well as what you can expect from this creative + fascinating poetry exhibit in Jersey City.
(Photo Credit: @benedictofigueroa)
Poems to Move Through
Benedicto has hidden his poems in plain sight throughout his exhibit at SMUSH Gallery. It is an immersive exhibition, which means the visitors are in control, activating unique devices that have been specifically curated for poetry-sharing purposes. A general theme of time travel is at play — both in the subjects of the poems that go back to Benedicto’s youth in Union City and in the media through which the poetry is shared.
In one poetry-as-art installation, voice actors read Benedicto’s poems via old school cassette tapes with foam headsets. In another, VHS recordings play poems onto a boxy TV set. Phone calls can be made in order to dial-up a poem at will. The once-beloved childhood activity of staring at magic eye posters now reveals hidden lyrical stanzas. A vintage viewfinder-like mechanism holds photographs of handwritten lines that, when clicked through, form a complete poem. A bodega shop sign flashes line after profound line, and anti-drug PSA signage has been usurped — all for the purpose of engaging the public with poems, hot off the mind of Benedicto.
The act of engaging with those poems marks the gallery visitor as experimenter, turning on and off the poetry. The experience is very different from Benedicto’s bread-and-butter form of poetry expression as performance in traditional events where the poet speaks from a stage. He’s removed himself from the telling of these poems to give added dimension through the vintage media he has employed. Flashing electric-light words, retro posters, and outdated technologies all bring the Union City of Benedicto’s childhood palpably close in the small gallery space. His exquisitely-expressed nostalgia is found both in his words and within the tools he’s appropriated to reveal them.
Benedicto doesn’t believe that there is anyone who doesn’t like poetry.“You already enjoy poetry. Your favorite line in a movie is a line of poetry. The lyrics to the song you love are lines of poetry. You can’t turn away, you already like it,” Benedicto said.
His Are You There exhibit at SMUSH Gallery provides proof of point for this theory that poetry is highly malleable and ubiquitous. Poems can be understood when presented on a stage and on a page, but can also be brought into our lives in very non-traditional ways that look more like play than like an intellectual challenge.
During his years as Union City’s Poet Laureate, Benedicto had duties to himself and to others. He worked hard to build a body of poems that were meaningful to him personally, imbued with truth that might stir listeners and readers. He was equally motivated to do work that would add value to the community that had elevated him to his position of honor. Then, for a decade, he organized poetry slam events for Jersey City.
Poetry writing is often a solitary venture. And yet, to be a poet is to make oneself open to others and to connect with intention and integrity about heartfelt topics. “I am not here to get on a soapbox and make commentary,” Benedicto asserted. “I will tell you my story honestly, and with as little shame as possible. In sharing my experience, I provide you a way to connect to others.”
The Making of a Community Poet
Benedicto grew up in Union City. He was the youngest of ten children in a family that welcomed creativity. His parents were connected to a pantheon of artists and poets that included queer icon of the Harlem Renaissance Richard Bruce Nugent. All around him was music, performed words, and collaboration between artists. He never questioned the pivotal role that the arts had in his life.
Today, Benedicto works to build that world of interdisciplinary arts openness for others. He has headlined at festivals, poetry clubs, in art galleries, and on college campuses. It’s quickly apparent, however, that his emphasis is rarely just upon himself or even his poetry. He is acutely focused on doing his part as an active player in multiple intersecting and growing arts communities and on his ability to use his poetry as a tool to participate in the ever-growing and shifting arts community.
After Benedicto moved to Jersey City in search of creative collaboration, small seed art ventures came up in his hometown of Union City. Benedicto loves to go to poetry events in those arts-bubbling-up places. He recommends going to see and hear what’s being shared at open mic nights held in gallery spaces all around New Jersey — places like Gallery Aferro in Newark, and The ProtoType in Paterson.