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Really, they were gathering the gatherings. When New York nonprofits City Lore and Poets House decided to organize last weekend's People's Poetry Gathering, they gave it a name that already had two strong associations. Since '85, the Cowboy Poetry Gathering has brought thousands to Elko, Nevada, to hear poems on the range. Since '90, the journal The Gathering of the Tribes has published writers associated with good ol' Loisaida. At the Downtown festival of readings, concerts, and panels, Wild West met East Village cowboys slammed against Indians. Then they traded business cards.
Given the rise in poetry's visibility and popularity during the past decade, the Gathering was a logical event. It took place during poetry month; incorporated the Talking Book Festival (an annual poetry and music concert at Aaron Davis Hall); and featured slams (a contest invented in Chicago), a heavyweight championship bout (based on a Taos, New Mexico, event), and freestyle rap competitions (straight outta the Nuyorican Poets Café). U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky talked about his Favorite Poem Project; Robert Bly talked myths. Taking place over three days in 20 different venues, most of them at Cooper Union, the Gathering was intended to bring artists and audience together in this haven for poets, in the same way jazz festivals do.
"I don't think there's ever been this much good poetry of so many different kinds all brought together," said California-based hobo poet U. Utah Phillips. There were many highlights: Wallace McRae's rattlesnake fable in rhyme, Bob Holman's mock chamber group presentation of his "SemiCento," Sandra María Esteves's opening-party invocation to jam, and Ani DiFranco's tribute to her former teacher and Talking Book organizer Sekou Sundiata. Readers like Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Miguel Algarín, Ntozake Shange, Quincy Troupe, Willie Perdomo, and Eileen Myles shared the lineup with oral poets from Africa, Puerto Rico, and Colombia. Even "establishment poets," white men of letters, the ones who don't need cowboy gatherings or slams to bring attention to their work, were in the house, probably grateful for the chance to speak to an audience not in suits or campus wear. "My deepest ambition has been to be a people's poet," said Galway Kinnell, before giving a lovely defense of Emily Dickinson against a deconstructionist at the Keeping Traditions Alive opening-night presentation.
Considering the schismatic, competitive nature of the poetry world, the Gathering was also a fool's errand that could only have been dreamed up by a literati outsider like Steve Zeitlin, director of the folklore organization City Lore, and realized with the help of two populists, namely Poets House director Lee Briccetti and gadfly poetry advocate Holman. "The poetry world is very balkanized," said Briccetti. "The tradition at Poets House has always been to mix it up. What we like can be expanded with exposure; that's what we're trying to do with the Gathering." "City Lore and Poets House are renowned big tent organizations," said Holman, "and their ongoing programs make the Gathering a logical step, and an imperative one."
Many different writers spoke, but it wasn't always clear they were listening. "Poets are the pettiest, most insecure people on the planet. We have little crumbs that we fight viciously over," said Sherman Alexie, writer of the film Smoke Signals, who narrowly defeated former Boston Globewriter and poet Patricia Smith at the first-ever New York City Heavyweight Poetry Bout. Could the Gathering help poets get along? "I think people just get laid," he said.
Or, sometimes, they clash. On Friday night cowboy poets tangled with local favorites in a slam held at a packed Nuyorican. With their ten-gallon hats and pointed boots, the cowboys were far from home in this former tenement, which has been a nurturing place for many victims of colonialism, not colonialists. "The place was filled with electricity," said Paul Zarzyski, a bronco rider, whose first poem about a whale in his wallet was zapped by judges. Eventually he and the other cowboys learned that the audience was more interested in politics than in wordplay, and with the correct poems, their scores improved. He left with his ego slightly wounded but his ears opened. "I had never heard those kinds of rhythms before. Any time you can get that many people celebrating the sounds of language, it's a miracle."
Slams have always been controversial. Some poets, like Zarzyski, think they create an unhelpful competitive stress. But as Nuyorican regular Staceyann Chin saia, "We compete all the time for publication space. Slams just give the audience a direct say-so." Slams may be the single most important catalyst for the recent rise of poetry, bringing verse to people who like to jeer and cheer, not clap politely. "They open up an audience who never knew that cowboys write poetry," said Chin. By the end of the night Friday, "people in the café respected that those are hardworking dudes out on their ranches," Tribes publisher and stalwart slam heckler Steve Cannon said. "Factionalism is the rear guard, togetherness is the fore guard."
Anyone who's been to a slam knows there's a homogenous performance style a confessional narrative, a sermonlike testifying that gets tiredly repeated, and that was in ample supply throughout the weekend. The Gathering presented alternative approaches to oration by bringing in troubadours from different cultures. It also confronted critics who cling to the supremacy of the printed word by showing the cross-cultural presence of oral poetry, and that the two are not necessarily exclusive. In Brazil, cordel poets gather in marketplaces and sing their verses to the accompaniment of 12-string guitars; they also publish their poems in chapbooks that they hang on clotheslines (cordels), which became the festival's official symbol.
"America doesn't have a unifying folk culture," Pinsky told a group of students Friday. "We are many folk." The challenge for the Gathering was to present those folk in a way that wasn't academic or museumlike. "We're experimenting," said Zeitlin. "We're trying many different things this year to see what works." The organizers and all the participants I spoke with hope this becomes an annual event. The festival seemed incredibly well run, and attendance was good. I didn't witness a single dead event, even though Cooper Union's Great Hall is a dry, sight lineimpaired, subterranean venue. After the very wet confessions of Kimiko Hahn and Reggie Cabico's drag queen supermodel haiku, I ended the weekend feeling not sick of words, but mourning what I had to miss. My favorite event was the Edgar Allan Poe tribute Saturday at midnight: a hundred people in the East Village's Marble Cemetery reading "The Raven" in eerie but cheery unison. "If your poem doesn't have more than yourself in it, it's not going to last," Bly told an audience the next day. But if others can put themselves into your poem, then it's good forevermore.