Readings are the Buick Cutlasses of entertainment—potentially slow and blindingly boring. I’ve been to libraries and Barnes & Noble bookstores where I swallowed my fist to suppress a yawn while the author of titles like Drywalling for Dummies droned into the mic. I’ve also gone to slam cafés where an overzealous poet expectorated into my espresso while riffing about the “barrio.” I’m a champion for readings in bars—souped up on cocktails, the crowd’s more responsive, the author’s more relaxed, and if the poetry’s bad, I can always drink until overly cadenced bathos becomes harmless white noise.
THE BOWERY POETRY CLUB (308 Bowery, 212-614-0505) is Nuyorican Poets Café’s sexier stepsister with a new-car smell, high ceilings, exposed-brick walls, track lighting, and an awesome Lite-Brite portrait of Whitman. The venue is a hotbed of balkanized wordsmiths who normally wouldn’t bum cigarettes off each other: slam poets, experimental LANGUAGE poets, New Yorker poets, and uh, novelists. My friend and I make it for Lysistrata, which turns out to be a gaggle of actors onstage reading an anti-war play, according to the program. While chugging $5 pints of Bass by the bar, we listen to “thespians” bleat out lines like “My throbbing foreskin!” After the rousing hour of Shakespearean scatology (I missed the anti-war part), emcee/huckster Bob Holman announces that the open mic is next—perfect time to make our getaway.
An amber-lit gem of a bar right off the harsh BQE, PETE’S CANDY STORE (709 Lorimer Street, Brooklyn, 718-302-3770) is boutique-sized with faded cloves and hearts stenciled on the wall, a warm sepia glow, and tables decoupaged with Chinese newsprint. Although not really a writers’ bar, Pete’s hosts the weekly “Wax Poetica” series in a tiny room where audience members bump knees and share secondhand smoke. Writers here are more like twentysomething hipsters, albeit hipsters toned down a notch—not a Williamsburg faux hawk in sight. After one reading, I order a syrupy Jack and Ginger ($5) and engage in an hour-long conversation about dead German poets with a cute audience member. Writers are normally a rumpled, unphotogenic bunch, but at Pete’s they half-pass as eye candy.
The sign in front of CORNELIA STREET CAFÉ (29 Cornelia Street, 212-989-9319) announces, “In the Spirit of the ’60s.” My friend spies the fancy clientele and mutters, “More like the spirit of the mid ’80s.” Confused by the linen tablecloths, the tasteful decor, and the Ally McBeal look-alikes in wheat-colored turtlenecks, we trudge downstairs and are relieved to find a bright blue East Village-y basement where the last few minutes of a songwriters’ workshop is taking place. Judging by the scraggly-haired and goateed lyricists, Cornelia Street Café is the last true holdout for old-school Beats, a speakeasy bomb shelter for some feel-good bongos and versifyin’; that is until we return upstairs to the Yuppie Front. At the bar, we order two glasses of house white ($5) from the extensive wine list and chat up the bartender, who lauds Cornelia’s diversity and rich poetry vibes. Sounds good, but after a dose of literary showmanship, we leave Cornelia and beeline it to a pub where the only vibe we want is bad jukebox rock. —