When Bob Holman opened the Bowery Poetry Club in 2002, it was with visions of Ginsberg, Burroughs, and the Beats floating around in his head. He was 54 and already a legend, pioneering spoken-word poetry in various New York communities, like the St. Mark’s Poetry Project and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. In 1995, the New Yorker called him “a postmodern promoter of poetry who has done more to bring poetry to cafés and bars than anyone since Ferlinghetti.” But after all these accolades, he wanted to do something on his own.
“[Bowery is] my utopia,” Holman says. “A place where poetry is spoken and lived. Imaginative force is unleashed, creating a space that’s safe for all kinds of experimentalism, where the lineages of poetry can coexist and a vibrant living community can convene.”
Holman is now in his late sixties, and his beloved poetry oasis has dealt with its share of difficulties. By 2012, the club, which had become a second home to a generation of New York poets, was lucky to break even financially. It closed that year and reopened as Bowery Poetry in 2013, sharing its space with Duane Park dinner cabaret. It was forced to move locations, reopening in 2013 at 308 Bowery and graciously given a bill-free space by Duane Park, a popular burlesque venue that didn’t host shows on Sundays and Mondays.
With the new location soon came new leadership, as Holman stepped away from the club in 2013 (he currently serves as its artistic director, and comes to readings when he’s in town) to spend more time on endangered-language activism. Leading the new Bowery Poetry as executive director is film poet Nikhil Melnechuk from Massachusetts, who moved to New York partly because he had heard of the “Shangri-La” that was Bowery Poetry, though he did not enter the club for a year and a half after he arrived.
“I wanted to arrive at the Bowery Poetry Club in a big way,” Melnechuk says. “So for a year and a half I went to the Strand bookstore, bought one book of poetry, read it that day, and wrote poems in the style of that author. It was a little insane, but I got an amazing, cheap education in poetry.”
When he did start performing shows at Bowery Poetry, he was taken into the fold and mentored by Holman himself. By the end of 2014, it was time for him to take the reins in a new era for the club. Melnechuk speaks of the fear Bowery Poetry had when the club reopened — the fear that the old poetry community would not come back. And some didn’t. Now, the club has rebuilt itself, and, starting September 6, it will host its first five-week workshop series, one of three for the fall season.
“The workshops will be an opportunity for people from the [old Bowery] community to be teachers,” he says, “and give new people who are coming to poetry for the first time, coming to Bowery for the first time, an opportunity to be a core part of this community and develop their skills.”
The workshops are the pet project of Community Manager Ariel Yelen, who had been to similar events around the city and wondered: Why can’t we do these here? She curated the fall lineup, starting with Brooklyn poet and visual artist Bianca Stone, then Croatian poet Ana Bozicevic, and finally 2015 Guggenheim fellow Rowan Ricardo Phillips. “All three have something very different going on,” Yelen says, “which is attractive, as opposed to having one school of poets.”
Melnechuk’s vision for the new Bowery Poetry is in some ways much like Holman’s initial vision: an egalitarian, equal-opportunity space for poets. That’s the impetus behind so much of what the club does: open mic nights, workshops for all experience levels, relatively inexpensive classes. Starting January 11, Bowery Poetry is relaunching its poetry slams, to be hosted 9 p.m. each Monday night by Ashley August, New York’s 2013 youth poet laureate.
“We think of poetry as multidisciplinary,” Melnechuk says. “That’s really the mode we’re trying to go with, poetry as a way to think about the creation of art, engagement in society — poetry films, poets’ theater, poetic music like singer-songwriter and hip-hop. We’ve seen that there’s a whole new generation looking for a place, and this place is for them.”
Bowery Poetry’s first workshop series begins on September 6. For more information, click here.