Having a journolance past, this habit of copious note-taking endures as part and parcel of my enjoyment of live performances of any kind. And yet, even after decades of making my annual pilgrimage to the St. Marks Church in the Bowery at 10th Street and Second Avenue for the Poetry Project New Years’ Day Marathon – an event that is artist-oriented as well as political, with no small doses of humor, and not just 5-7 minutes per speaker but music and dance as well – and it has never occurred to me to comment.
However, I never had a blog before.
It starts at 2pm and has gone on as long as to 2am. And yes, it is a marathon for the audience as well as the performers, volunteers, food court helpers, the ticket sellers sitting in the cold, cold lobby as well as those by the back entrance where the various acts go to check in. I mention these worthies before all else because without their devotion to the wordsmiths (of which they number as well, just later or earlier in the day, as the schedule runs) this would not be possible. I will never fade on applause for them when some orator decides their horatory is failing and offers the obligatory, “And let’s have a little show of thanks for the people who put this together…”
Overall, every year does have a trend, or at least one or two themes, politically. 9/11 was a huge rift, in some ways. A general sorrow pervaded, but the staunch Leftists had to condemn the US policies that led to same (via the Noam Chomsky school) while a select few had to stand up for the nation, if not just being New Yorkers all. Then there was Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami, and, as always: Bush Bush Bush… So you’d expect a lot of Obama paeans…and you’d be worng. (You know, I know I just misspelled “wrong”. But I actually love the way it looks. I love the way it is underlined in red by my spellcheck, informing me that it is a rude incursion on an otherwise proper essay. So it stays. Must be under the influence.) The headliner, ever since Allen Ginsburg died, has been Patti Smith, usually straight from her own annual New Years concert, and she’s always the bellwether, pretty much capping the mood, the zeitgeist, weltanschauung, etc. (And why must I resort to German? – because these are the words we use! What would you have me say? “The full magilla”? Well, that would be “worng” as well, for two reasons: 1 - the standard American slang picked up this phrase directly from Borscht Belt comics who were referring to the reading of the “meghilla”, the Purim story from the Torah in a non-abridged version; and 2 - because anyone over the age of ____ will associate it with the cartoon “Magilla Gorilla”, superseding any presets with respect to an all-encompassing, undefined socio-psychological aether.) What was specifically different this time was the number of couples (both poets, both reading) who brought along progeny, frequently just going up on stage to bop around with mommy or daddy. Irresistible charm.
Here then, are the observations of a regular, sitting (reclining as much, veterans bring cushions!) up front, stage (altar) left. The notes are just names and a snatch or two of immediate impressions, not in any way to be interpreted as slur or more than a blur and not even a roll call (I stopped numbering them after 101). When you’re there to have articulate individuals transmit complex information, you must pay attention to even follow along. So this is sequential (more or less) and safely attributed (within reason), at best. At worst? Eh, who cares? Call it A Day In the Life (Beatles cop) or A Life In A Day (Simple Minds cop) or All The Livelong Day, recorded by… (never mind)
The ever-natty Brendan Lorber (I mean, the guy wears a tux every year!) who was with Tracey McTague and child. His bit was intro’ed as “What Makes The Depression Great” meaning not the loss of revenue by the powers-that-be as much as the unison of the powerless-that-are in a kind of realization that we really do share a common interest in saving our country, and by that, the world. (And while I am not a “nationalist”, per se, one needs but scroll down a few posts to find mine own take on the matter. “Nuff said.)
The “Franco-Pyrranean” Nicole Peyrafitte came out from the back to do her word nuber and then went back to the kitchen where she was in charge of the chili this year. And as if to attest to the authenticity of the batches, every time she emerged thereafter, it was wearing an apron.
Murat Nemat-Nejat is a man after my own heart, making reference to “Blade Runner” and the Replicant’s 4-year lifespan (perhaps some application to the outgoing admin, but I’m not sure – think accent) before going into a personification of geometrical properties (shades of “Flatlands”!) called “Triangles”.
Susan Mauer asked, as a preface, “Does every body know what a jongleur is?” It didn’t seem to be that crucial information, but, in that crowd, it was very unlikely that it would need explication.
David Shapiro’s intro was longer than his poem, which was equally ok. It is your 5mins. –do what thou wilt.
There followed the irrepressible Bob Holman who had his own extensive lead-in, fresh from an African trip where he was hoping to “save the oral tradition digitally” and took along in trade 50 Obama t-shirts. (First direct ref. to the prez-elect, by the way.)
Saying that she was going to do “3 poems, the first one is my ‘hot mama’ poem and the others are serious,” was Patricia Spears-Jones way of prepping. So? Independent Black Woman stuff, you’d expect pro-Barack? Nope: more anti-Palin. Shows to go you.
My only note on Maria Mirabal is “What a dish!” – which doesn’t tell you a whole lot about her words (…as much as mine do about me…)
Peter Bushyeager closed with “Cookie”, a collaboration with his 9-year old daughter, abetted by another baby, this one black, cute-as-button in Oshbigosh overalls, climbing up and down the altar steps to underscore the maximum fun of the Sesamestreetwise.
The ever-dour-with-Jewish-guilt of Hal Sirowitz, our hilarial perennial prophet of doom, shifted parental responsibilities from the “Mother Said” series to implicate his father on this occasion, with respect to a bonding experience flawed to guffaw.
Unsure as to whether Vyt Bakaitis is native Lithuanian or just home-schooled, just one line jumped out of the mix: “and according to legend/only trees will swallow their own shadows.” It is that sort of thing which brings it back to the roots. (Yes, I know – am I being clever again or sincere?)
Foamola is a…what? Music collective, spontaneous aggregation of minimalist monotoners, adults driven crazy by children’s instruments? I should post a video here.
Whatever, they precede the only break this year, at 5pm.
Bob Hershorn offers a “Primer for a New Audience,” meaning those who had not been to previous marathons, and basically puncturing the punctuation for all he’s worth. (Think of MAD’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” and you’ll get the drift.)
Jon S. Hall (ex-King Missile frontman/present Attorney-at Law) wanted to actually say something positive about the change of the guard, but had gone to a reading entitled “Retire Your Bush Poems” (which was probably a hoot) but unfortunately came up with one more and felt the need to venti latte one last time.
One should make note of the few remaining legends who show up, and one of them is Steve Cannon, he of the Gathering of the Tribes project. I can’t recall off-hand any previous marathons he’d attended, and even though it was only to tinkle the ivories as a backdrop to some gal reading his work at the lecturn, it was a rare moment.
Chris Rael has an Indian-punk fusion band called Church of Betty in which he’s been known to play sitar and show off his micro-tonal singing. However, like most here, he has an affection for words as well, inspiring him to a song-cycle based upon James Joyce’s “The Dubliners” and this was an extract.
When someone goes on at length, the way Nathaniel Siegel did, they’d better have a lot to say, and a fine way of saying it. Suffice it that this one was his mini-“Journal of the Plague Years” as rendered by Armistead Maupin. And a big hit with the crowd.
Paul LeFarge’s line, “It was like the Decameron, but no one was telling stories,” seemed to resonate with me, at the time. I have no idea why now.
For many years, Ed Friedman ran the Poetry Project. Now he is just another beloved alumnus, but still a good reason to pay attention as he talks about his youth in the Junior Red Cross.
“Cumming is a way of realizing I’m a lump of human sludge,” is not the most romantic description of mammalian male orgasm, but it was Cliff Fyman’s way of breaking up the audience.
The sotto voce playwright/actor Jim Neu is another fave of mine. Guy just cracks me up with savvy takes on the psychobabble of cultural doublethink which passes for discourse in the tabs ‘n’ blabs. His brief today is entitled: “You can’t make this stuff up”, and his subject: Situationology.
In another omnibus presentation, Harris Schiff gave his bit on “Thing To Know On Earth” (presumably for visiting, non-resident aliens), but for us natives, it began with the basics: “There is New, Old, Ancient, and Primary.” Some things we do have a tendency to forget.
Emily XYZ and Meyers Bartlett have been doing these duets, sort of simultaneous double-speaking texts at seeming cross-purposes yet always (when you can focus on one or the other) dead-on the money. As Emily has been living in Ann Arbor for a few years, it would seem the plight of the auto worker was on her mind: the piece was entitled “Will the last one of Michigan please turn off the lights?” The killer stop-synchro was on the line “…YEAH, SO EVERYBODY’S BROKE” WHO’S LAUGHING NOW? US—THE ARTISTS, BECAUSE WE’VE ALWAYS BEEN BROKE!”
The agitprop cowboy Steve Earle needs no intro, but he did have an explanation as to why he missed last year’s shindig: the death of his father. This was also the subject of his piece, eschewing previous appearances admin opposition, giving sway to a more tender side in eulogy.
Apparently, Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle is a name writ large, and if not here then, primarily, in the field of erotic horror. Whatever, a nice enough imagist in the Lovecraft vein.
Bringing it all back home, Joel Lewis wanted to correct a fallacy promulgated by the Republican propaganda machine. “Contrary to popular opinion, Manhattan does have a Main Street. It is on Roosevelt Island.” If that weren’t enough, his dream-trance, astral-projection back to a bizarre fantasy of the Brill Building heydays was the icing on the cupcake.
“Citizen” Reno came out early and off her speed (some shmuck didn’t show when they should’ve) but ramped it up quickly, basically going to the thought at the back of most minds. “So who cares about this Rick Warren at the inauguration? Barack’s got enough problems without us ganging up on him..” to paraphrase would be the best I could do. The thrust is there. “And Gay Marriage? I thought that’s why I became Gay – SO I COULD NEVER GET MARRIED!” This does not do justice to the woman: Rage-o-holism made trenchant. Not Bill Hicks, but then, who is?
The first time I saw Yoshiko Chuma’s School of Hard Knocks, the choreographer’s work was entitled “The Little Mermaid” and WELL before Disney got its hands on it. Every year she does an improv in complete silence. This is body language for empathic linguists.
And as if to honor another of the departed, Mitch Highfill bowed out of the spotlight to read poems by the late, lamented Jack Spicer. On sex. Always good to hear from the dead on sex, by Spicer’s worth extra.
If the name Elliott Sharp means anything to you, calling this “acute musicianship” would be just a cute underscore. Unlike previous times, no Chapman stick or dual-necked monster; just a National Steel played with fingers in a hammerstyle technique. I’ve seen a lot of Steel players but they were almost exclusively slide and blues. This was a strict as his Fibonacci Series, and jaw-droppingly awesome.
It would seem that Anne Tardos has a thing for Spinoza, but further than that I cannot say.
Abraham Gomez-Delgado was on the congas, but playing them as if he’d stumbled on them on a voyage of discovery. Which isn’t to say he couldn’t keep time, but accompanying Samita Sinha, on her vocal improvisation based on songs by Sui Gen, China’s most famous rock star, the time was the last thing either kept.
Bill Kushner always brings a twisted humor into the mix, and this time it was even goofier. For “My Little Chihuahua” he had an older lady friend put on a pair of ears and nose to actually do the dog, act out the yips and yaps of his hairless friend from the front row. (Really, showstopper.)
Continuing on the musical vein (they seemed to stack up around the 8-9pm period) the large ensemble called Arthur’s Landing assembled with Steven Hall on acoustic guitar and vocals, Ernie Brooks (original Modern Lovers bassist, among other things), Yvette Perez on violin (I think?), and rounded out by a couple of long-time avant-garde music stalwarts: Peter Zummo on trombone and Bill Ruyle on hammer dulcimer (I think). The reason for this talent pool was to honor the music of the late Arthur Russell, a composer and performer with feet in both the ambient “World of Echo” and fronting lotsa 1980’s dance one-offs, even garnering some semi-hits in town way back when. Being something of a show-stopper, they were given close to 12 minutes for three spatially-transparent floating jazz numbers with undercrooning and guest-ghost go-go gal moves by the aforementioned Ms. Chuma.
When it does get back to the roots, there are only a few Beats left, and John Giorno isn’t only the most vocal; he’s the most mobile. For XX amount of years (no, I won’t embarrass him with the number), he has been be-bopping around that stage to a drummer that defies gravity (or maybe redefines “spry”). This year, it wasn’t as ‘up’ as has been. Normally his reading of a line like “It doesn’t get any better than this” would be positive. But it is also his talent to show you how just that lack of emphasis could turn it negative.
As usual, Lenny Kaye went on just before Patti. For several years he’d been doing excerpts from his book-in-progress on the crooner/bandleader Russ Columbo. That phase has reached publication, as I could see a copy of the hardcover in the hands of his old agent Jane Friedman (and a handsome tome it looks to be as well). With guitar again, he sang a very simple love song that he’d done for his sister’s wedding the summer past, to another woman under the, soon-to-be-revoked-by-CA, SF municipal laws.
Patti is what packs the seats, so she gets the 15 minutes w/o question. In the past she’s been exhortative, especially when opposing the 2nd term of the present prez, leading all in “People Got The Power”, but not this year, even as it has been so amply demonstrated. No clarinet either, just strumming away with acoustic backing from Lenny. It was one of her monotonal trance numbers, letting the stream of consciousness dip into CNN headlines, briefly touching on Obama and the new admin, cautioning even as championing, and the Gaza incursion, the latter mostly for the slaughter on both sides.
Although she seemed well-enough informed about the effect of madelines on Proust, Erica Hunt found her sense-memory in a pickled pigfoot (causing me to ponder the homonyms of “awful” and “offal”). Other than that, I only recall the project introducer for the next person saying, “That was quite a revelation for me, considering I’m vegetarian,” proving that the aside-dishes are also part of the meal.
Roderigo Toscano utilized an “Improvised Poetic Device – an IPD” to some end, of which I have no further note.
Perhaps more flustered than usual (which is to say, par for the course), Taylor Mead flounced as well as might be for his age and, to these eyes, debilitated condition. As another of the legacies of bygone days and sleazier periods, he can get away with anything and the crowd roars, with fairly good reason. His main consternation today was that he’d forgotten to bring his boom-box with the pre-recorded accompaniments to his two poems: one always funny/poignant, the other filthy. The former would probably encompass both in any other forum, being a paean to Heath Ledger for his role in “Hollywood’s first straight gay movie.” (Uncertain if there should be punctuation there, but that’s part of interpretation ain’t it?)
And, as if to put the previous in boldface, there was a guy with a three-day stubble, kohl-rimmed eyes, in top-hat, feather boa-bolero jacket, black fishnets and heels walking around with a bunch of odd hand puppets. Apparently he was “Tabu” and was there to introduce them at the podium (one of which was Yma Sumac, another might’ve been Paris Hilton), before introducing Eileen Myles. Evermore butch every time I seen her, there is no doubt that some older lesbians make really great-looking men. Her poem was on “The Importance of Being Iceland,” but more of which I cannot offer. (You can tell that I’m beginning to get a tad frazzled by this point.)
Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth came to confess that he’d been getting into some bands way behind the curve, his latest being Fairport Convention. With that in mind he struggled through a Sandy Denny song…adequately.
The final note I have is on the late appearance of Justin Bond, the figurehead at the South Street Seaport’s Spiegelworld tent – an attempt to inject some modicum of decadence into this otherwise sober and staid burg. He is known for the sly stage presence of Joel Grey in Cabaret, while also being capable of fervently belting out strident rabble rousing anthems. Which is what he gave voice to here, chiding Obama for his preacher pick and giving vent to his outrage at unequal rights for alternate genders, sans microphone. Like old Weimar Weill on steroids.
So that’s where I left it. Hate to give short shrift to the tail end of the batting order but lying around for a full day can be exhausting too…