The 37th St. Mark’s Poetry Project Marathon Reading
January 1, 2011
If one loves poetry in New York, St. Mark’s Church is the place to be on New Year’s Day. Even if, as lead-off poet-impresario Bob Holman observed (echoing a recent Daylight Savings poem by U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin), measured time is an arbitrary arrangement, it’s good to know that so many New York poets will show up and read on this “date certain.”
And so they did, along with a dozen or so musical acts, the latter providing interstitial palate cleansing from the accumulating mass of freighted words. Of which, as former laureate Charles Simic would’ve said, “the air was thick with them” [as in angels, as in “The Library”].
Arriving on time at 2 pm had its benefits, garnering third row seats with a perfect view the keyboard of the grand piano. The utility of this would become pellucidly apparent when Philip Glass sat down at 5 pm to play an elegiac, mythocosmic, talking-finger composition.
The program was organized in eleven one-hour segments (2-3, 3-4 pm, etc.), each introduced by a different emcee. Poetry Project director and event majordomo Stacy Szymaszek introduced the first set and Holman, who started with electromagnetism, forcefully, ironically promising that “this year will be different… it will be new!”
Poetic highlights of the day, in a day of highlights, included Elizabeth Willis, with a highly entertaining, deadly serious, name-drop “witch list,” commencing with Salem’s Alice and Mary Parker, executed on September 22, 1692, tartly (yea, bewitchingly) delivered; Ken Chen, reading an ingenious, heart-wrenching poem of love lost, using logical constructions: “When I miss you, does that make the first sentence false?”, and “One can use a question mark to cut someone’s heart out”; Joe Elliot, with a mesmerizing rain poem: “Each time it rains it rhymes with the next time it rains… the non-judgmental rain… the obliviated rain”; the crowd-pleasing Steve Earle, a confident country western presence with commanding style, in an unsympathetic ode to the short-lived, long-loved self-said “sadist” star Hank Williams, in which “even the needle in the groove sounded lonesome”; an astonishing, astonishingly delivered melancholy by Brooklyn Rail senior editor John Yau, “More clouds pass by my crumbling hut… There are reasons for this, but no one can remember them,” the day’s poem to remember; John Giorno in a lengthy, memorized, stage-crafted, boldly delivered fantasy on Federico García Lorca: “Room 1231 is a sacred place, like Bethlehem, I said”; “Poems of great wisdom can be written anywhere.”
There were many fine turns of phrase, and lines delivered: Ted Greenwald’s “Snap-on nervous system,” Michael Cirelli, on New Jersey’s tan tax, in which “the water turned to glass”; Bill Zavatsky, whose epitaph will read, “away from my desk,” Brendon Lorber, invoking “drive-by nostalgia”; Todd Colby, as Janus looking back to say, “Thank you all; it was a pretty good year”; Linda Russo, in poignant suburbanese: “Housekeeping logic... a heartbeat, a heartbeat, yours”; the legendary, elder Jonas Mekas asking, “Why is it that… I have to know… who I am… and what I am doing?”; Adeena Karasick, presciently closing with a “cartridge in a prayer tree.”
Entries in the black, white and red humor department included St. Mark’s board member Greg Fuchs, who credibly (if not meaningfully) claimed that “cunnilingus was present in all high culture periods”; Paolo Javier, running the clock with the mandatory “Apology to My Asshole,” delivered convincingly; the hilarious ensemble Foamola, with “the best dentists are Satan worshippers” and “ain’t gonna blog no more”; John S. Hall, with a caustic castigation of technology, lyrically speculating about a Facebook “friend” he didn’t know; CA Conrad, bitterly, on “the butterfly who wonders about her old caterpillar friends” and “this fence keeps you in your world”; Joel Lewis in a quintessential New York reverie: “manatees now swim up the Hudson… fried baloney sandwich… people wanted mushrooms… people wanted mayo… the hell with it… I was watching you tonight and saw that your liver and kidneys were working well”; and éminence grise Taylor Mead, complaining good-naturedly about aging.
Musical highlights included Michael Lydon on acoustic guitar, singing “Paris in the Rain” feeling just like being there; a touching performance of the lover-longing “Orange Blossoms” by Miles Joris Peyrafitte on guitar, stunningly sung by the archangel-voiced Sylvia Mae Gorelick; the unique ensemble Church of Betty; Mohammed Fairouz on piano, intriguingly accompanying David Shapiro; the avant-garde Secret Orchestra – string bass, brushed snare drums and atonal keyboard, with narration by Joanna Penn Cooper; Maggie Dubris and band, on “time and memory”; Marty Ehrlich, who “owned” the room with a tour de force, relentless alto sax solo; the axeman nonpareil Elliott Sharp, on an unusual instrument, playing “fractal geometry” (as he said) at earsplitting decibels – music that precipitates vivid dreams for days; and the automatic Philip Glass, who brought a black wood box to life, who could’ve played all night, who played a mezzo-piano, virtuoso rain poem of his own, waveform after rippling wave, necessarily stopping, somehow, then vanishing.
The day included sober homages to poets passed on in 2010 – including Michael Gizzi, by his brother Peter, Tuli Kupferberg and Janine Pommy Vega. Surrealist poet and Brooklyn Rail writer Valery Oisteanu read his monody to Vega: “Sleep Janine, with all the birds exulting at your window”; Janet Hamill and Penny Arcade also delivered eulogies to Vega.
Long-time marathon participant Patti Smith, in mode raconteuse, was disarmingly incoherent. Smith mused on rabbits (2011 being the Chinese Year of the Rabbit): “Rabbits go into a field. Many rabbits gather….” So perhaps we, like rabbits… and America, perhaps to a future “… sanctioned by men like Thomas Paine.” Then reading a poem in which “I watched fish fall from the sky… I saw the sword of G*d… and we drank as we were bid.” Between the late Judy Bond’s Coal Mountain, anti-science, Last Thursdayist creationists and media’s totalitarian lock, these words ring less poetically in 2011 than they might have in a wider-eyed 1977.
The day’s most memorable performance was a sparkling duet poem co-written and read by Eileen Myles and Leopoldine Core. This blushing, gushing, two turtledove wordplay between two lovers of widely separated generations represented risk for Myles, who came through with flying colors, mainly because everything between them is meshing poetically – in physics and in art: “Oh my g*d I’m so fucking in love” so sensualist, so sure.
As an operation, the St. Mark’s Poetry Project’s 37th Annual Marathon Reading (better to call it the “Poetry Marathon” in this age of web search) was a clear success. Overseen by Szymaszek, program coordinator Arlo Quint, and program assistant Nicole Wallace, the segments ran like clockwork. The sound system (if always too loud), frequently involving multiple microphones and the need for constant reconfiguration, was also swimmingly managed by sound techs/poets David Vogen and Jim Behrle. The food and book concessionaires were efficient and cordial, the donated wares absurdly affordable if underpatronized. Numerous vendors donated food, beverages and services; numerous volunteers, members and contributors were also cited in the program.
The event being a literal marathon, it’s likely that few who didn’t have to stay remained until the end (this correspondent exited after about eight hours, with three hours remaining), if for no other reason than having other obligations, such as the Bowery Poetry Club’s simultaneous event. One left gastronomically sated: poetry, as its adherents know, is filling. (And pierogies, which Wisława Szymborska cites as one of the benefits of life on earth in “Here,” ain’t bad either.)
A few technical suggestions: For poets reading – First, that performance differs from silent reading, requiring a thespian approach – physical stage presence, exaggerated loudness, measured delivery, clear diction and simulated eye contact; second, to intentionally transmit personality and human emotion, whether dry or dynamic, sober or humorous. The benefits of variety notwithstanding, dull deliveries were the day’s downers, connection lost. Third, to present graspable content: complexity is heard as noise in the oral/aural setting. For the Poetry Project – even if managing creative writers is exactly like herding cats, and intellectual property is still held dear by some, an after-program online transcript of poetry read and song lyrics would be really helpful, and performing poets’ bibliographies would help disseminate their work. Single YouTube videos of every performance posted online, too. Will the entire event video be distributed to schools and libraries nationwide? It should be. Of course, the day will make a fine commemorative book.
The St. Mark’s Poetry Project’s Marathon Reading isn’t a parade that deserves raining on. Still, its ethnic homogeneity didn’t match New York’s diverse demographics: rather it understandably matched St. Mark’s Poetry Project’s demographic, which is WEHE – white, earnest, and highly educated. And the reality of factions and franchises in the microverse of New York poetry and publishing was present in the absence of certain big guns and representatives from competing clubs. Their loss; St. Mark’s deserves all the praise for stimulating, calibrating and inspiring New Yorkers’ minds on this auspicious day, for bringing poets and poetry lovers together, and for making poets’ voices heard – against the grain, against the odds, for the sake of us all. To paraphrase Todd Colby:
“Thank you all; it was a pretty good day.”