A slender man draped in a long coat and sporting coiffed dark hair descends a set of stairs, strolling along the South Street Seaport in a faded video sequence that seemed straight out of a dream. The man narrates in Spanish while English subtitles roll underneath: “There are things and dreams that disappear by not thinking them/And lovers whose pain is forgotten during each successive sleep.” The man is Pablo Conejero López, a Spanish artist that has haunted the Lower East Side with his introspective poetry and eclectic multimedia music collaborations.
The poem in the video is an excerpt from Lopez’s third book, Cuerpos (“bodies” in Spanish), which will be released in December with Paradigm Publishing. But although López has been prolific on social media—his Instagram boasts 12,300 followers and growing—that’s not how I was introduced to the curious artist. In a way, I first encountered López while I was walking around Great Jones Street and a ragged piece of paper stuck atop a Minnie Mouse sticker caught my eye. The haunting opening lines resonated with me: “Come/take me with you/by the hand down melting pathways/and store windows/so we can see our reflection.” So I looked up hashtag #PabloCL to learn more about my mysterious street poet.
When I met up with López in person a few weeks later on a bench on the outskirts of Seward Park, he recounted the story of how his “sticky paper” poem adventures began. “It was sort of an accident that happened. One day I was printing stuff up, and I used sticky paper instead…so I realized it could be a sticker…Like, why didn’t I do this before? Because if you’re an artist or poet, it’s the fastest way to get your words out there.” He used the hashtag #PabloCL to connect with passerby. Some liked his art and some did not, but the most important thing was that people took the time to notice his art, which could feel like a rarity in a world where writers often faced a steady stream of rejections from literary magazines. “When you’re doing this, you don’t need anyone’s approval. You just post it. And it’s free. It’s more direct. Maybe somebody would never find out or you would have never found out if I was published [in] the Paris Review.”
Upon our first encounter, I immediately noticed two things about the soft-spoken artist, who seemed out of place in this bustling corner of the Lower East Side where the sirens of ambulances mingled with the loud conversations of park goers. First: the intensity of his gaze and keen self-awareness (during a lull in conversation, he sighed and asked, “Am I boring you?”), which I attributed to his background as an actor. Second: his sharp attire (a crisp blue striped shirt, sheer black dress pants and shiny leather shoes), which spoke to his day job (he works in a shoe store now and before that in a tailor’s shop).
The 38-year-old poet-musician was raised as the youngest of four children in the coastal Spanish city of Valencia, where he was raised “in a very conventional and traditional atmosphere because of the area of Spain I grew up in, but also a very unconventional family.”
Although both of his parents were educators before retiring, López spurned the academic life, opting not to go to college after high school. “I didn’t want to be a part of a system in any way. Because I grew up, you know, like many kids that are a bit artistic or the classic effeminate kid, I was always feeling inadequate in a kind of way. That sort of pushed me away from any kind of system.”
Instead, while he was developing his own writing, he set off for London, where he studied drama at the National Youth Theatre. He auditioned for and subsequently starred as Mercutio in a play his father wrote, an adaption of Romeo and Juliet and Two Noble Kinsmen in which Mercutio falls in love with Romeo and Juliet. He split his time between London and Madrid, bartending to earn his keep and also taking voice lessons.
Although he was an actor by training, López felt his true calling lay elsewhere, and he started shifting more formally towards music and poetry in the late 1990s. Of music, he says it “helped me develop an identity as a teenager when you feel misplaced and [have] classic adolescent feelings.” While writing the poems that would comprise his first book, Rock and Roll Jolie, López wound up joining a group of hard-nosed kids from the outskirts of Madrid, among whom the reclusive López found a home for five years when they formed a band called Vice and Vanity, featuring López as their vocalist. Even though their music hewed more to rock and roll, they had a sort of “punk rock aesthetic” that was inspired in part by the music scene unfolding in New York at the time. “It’s more of an attitude or a way of looking at life than a style of rock and roll,” said López.
Inevitably, he made his way to New York in his early twenties. López was visiting a friend at Stony Brook in Long Island, and he would take the train into the city and just roam the streets. But New York cast a spell on López, and he returned every year until 2005, when he met his now-husband, Vincent Michaud. Michaud would soon become a creative partner with López, as he illustrated the poet’s second book, New Reality, and also developed the visuals for many of his multimedia works, including Park Poem, a collaboration with Laloved Magazine that also featured spoken word poetry from López alongside out-of-this world music from López’s current band, Ensalmo (roughly meaning “incantation” in Spanish).
Newly in love and wanting to pursue other creative endeavors, López moved to the city for real in 2006 and split up the band, though in his first year in New York they did play a few gigs at spots like Continental (back when it was still doing live shows) and the Trash Bar in Williamsburg (now the Brooklyn location of the popular Overthrow boxing gym). But eventually, he and the band went their separate ways, separated by more than just an ocean. “They were demanding a presence from me, and I was also withdrawing and wanting to start a life here. I wanted to stay with them, but I also wanted to explore, not only personally but also artistically.”
López’s present-day band, Ensalmo, was eventually born with the addition of bandmates Florencia Zaballa Moon and Jamie Del Moon. All the while, López’s love of poetry grew stronger, inspired as he was by poets like Manhattan native and musician Jim Carroll, who also lived on the Lower East Side for a time. López released his second book of poetry in 2011, and then more recently began to plaster his writings around the city in places like Washington Square Park and the East Broadway subway station. So many of his poems centered on the experience of dwelling in this ever-changing place–whether it was being a romantic in the city or observing a flock of birds and meditating on their significance in one’s own life.
He was particularly inspired by the Lower East Side, where he’s lived for the past 10 years. In fact, it was in part due to the diversity of his surroundings that he decided to write his next book of poetry in both English and Spanish as a way to fully embrace his native tongue. “For this book, I really want to develop my love for my mother language. It’s the first bilingual book [of mine]. I wrote it, I translated it,” said López. “That’s what I like about New York—the diversity and the language diversity. The cultural diversity is something I identify with. Especially in this neighborhood,” he said, gesturing to the small storefronts and residential walk-ups on Essex Street.
We chatted for a little bit about the shops of nearby Orchard Street and the gentrification of Chinatown. In the process, I discovered that López had more than just a personal connection to the Lower East Side—it was a historical one that spanned generations. His grandfather and great-grandfather moved to New York, and it’s possible they may have at one point lived on Cherry Street, settling in among the influx of Spaniards that flocked to Lower Manhattan in the early twentieth century. “It makes me feel subconsciously that I ended up here.”