Diving Into NYWC’s Archives: Nelson Figueroa

NYWC Founder & Executive Director Aaron Zimmerman with Nelson Figueroa.

NY Writers Coalition is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and we’re excited to share photos from our archives and the stories behind them over the next several weeks. We wanted to start things off by telling the story of one of our earliest workshop participants, Nelson Figueroa.

Before the official formation of NYWC in 2002, Founder and Executive Director Aaron Zimmerman led workshops for three years at The Prince George, supportive housing for low-income and formerly homeless adults and people living with HIV/AIDS. It was there that he met Nelson Figueroa, a participant who joined this first NYWC workshop.

Aaron wrote about this experience in a 2019 piece for Amherst Writers & Artists’ archives. “One day in [the] workshop, I looked at Nelson and had a flash of recognition that he might not be with us for much longer, and that when he passed away, his writing would be lost forever. He kept reams of his poems in various folders and envelopes. I asked him if he’d like to publish a book of his writing, and I think the process of putting his book together was a source of purpose for him.” The cover of Nelson’s book Pigs, Parrots, and Pain.

The cover of Nelson’ Book: Pig, Parrots, and Pain.

In May 2002, we published Nelson’s chapbook of poetry, Pigs, Parrots, and Pain. Nelson read alongside LAMBDA Literary Award-winning poet Eileen Myles and other writers at NYWC’s first event. The publication of his writing had a profound effect on Nelson.

“[He] would call me from time to time and ask me to print more copies because he said, ‘I think I can move them,’” Aaron continued. “He was out hustling, selling them wherever he went. Something in his identity in the world, with his family, and to himself had shifted, and he fully claimed being a writer.”

Nelson died two months later in July 2002.

“Working with Nelson helped form a roadmap for how supporting someone as a writer can create deep and very meaningful impact,” Aaron said. “This act of preserving and amplifying voice, providing safe space, and exploring the power of writing to transform has been repeated countless times [at our workshops].”

Throughout the years, NYWC has held myriad creative writing workshops, readings, and events, and we have also published numerous chapbooks. We wouldn’t exist without that first workshop at The Prince George, and Nelson’s writing and influence reverberates through our organization over 20 years later.

Below you can find one of Nelson’s poems, Out of the Chamber:

I have AIDS.
Death looms near.
Basic situations
Take on perverse interpretations.
Strapped down on an MRI sled
Apprehensions, visions of cremation–hell fires-­
Form in my pre-procedure
Countdown to God knows
What they are looking for.
I have to trust.
It comes not easily
Suddenly–whoosh!–l’m in
And now the cacophony of
Gear grinding gear and
The raps on the coffin-like structure
Kunk, kunk, kunk
Oh my god a new sound
Distant but familiar
Sounds that could possibly be
But how would l know?
When does one know?
When you hear what I hear
I hear the new sound
The now perverse mind twisting
A lasting impression
Scunk-shah, shuckska-tamp
A shovel raking, scooping
Up dirt and tamping tired earth
Is what I hear
I see all too painfully dear
It hurts—I see my
Parents’ gravestone, all too vivid.
Ramon Enrique and Diana Reyes
Voluminous guilt fills me
I cry hard and long
For no one can see me
I feel no shame
Save that for my own
No one can feel what
My tortured soul feels
The kunks return rhythmic
But I can’t move
I can’t hold on
Enough! Arrgghh!! l cry out loud
Loud enough to be heard
Above the din, louder than my
Silent fears–enough!
I’m breaking up. I’m crashing down
Out of orbit from another realm
Another plane–suddenly the
Last blast of clicks. raps, kunks
Whish!!———l’m out!
The light blinds me
I’m incoherent, visibly shaken
I wipe my tears
And thank God
I’m alive
Out of the chamber.

If you share our commitment to the power of community and creativity, please consider making a one-time or recurring donation. Your support will help ensure that our work can continue creating opportunities for writers from under-resourced communities. Here’s to the next 20 years of NY Writers Coalition!