The Poetry Project’s Half-Century of Dissent


February 10, 1971, on a Wednesday night in the East Village, a full moon glowed in the wintry sky over St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. Inside, a group of New York’s most cutting-edge scene-makers gathered at the Poetry Project to hear a reading by poet and Warhol aide-de-camp Gerard Malanga. Andy was there, as was Lou Reed, along with poets Gregory Corso, John Giorno, Joe Brainard, and Bernadette Mayer. First up that night was a dark-eyed, lanky young poetess by the name of Patti Smith. An up-and-coming playwright named Sam Shepard, with whom she’d recently become involved, was there in support, as was her closest friend and collaborator, Robert Mapplethorpe.

Smith knew she didn’t just want to read that night; rather, she wanted to electrify the audience with poems that possessed the power of rock ‘n’ roll. She invited the guitarist Lenny Kaye to play while she recited, and she decided to sing a few songs as well, including a cover of “Mack the Knife,” in honor of Bertolt Brecht’s birthday. “Patti was her usual provocative self, and at the end we received a tumultuous, and quite surprising, round of applause from the assembled,” Kaye remembers. “We felt, like, ‘Wow, this was really successful.’ We had done our duty to God and country. And art.” After Smith’s performance, record producer Sandy Pearlman told Patti she should be singing in a rock ‘n’ roll band — and the rest, as they say, is history. But what was a major moment for rock was, in fact, for the Poetry Project, really just another Wednesday night for poets, artists, and musicians to find themselves in a venue dedicated to artistic detonations of all kinds.

Smith wasn’t the first to use poetry as a tool for insurrection; that had been part of the Poetry Project mission from the beginning. Since its founding in the autumn of 1966, the Project has been one of the great American countercultural institutions — a platform for poetry run by poets, where dissent has always been the highest form. A buzzing mecca for those pushing up against the mainstream, the Project was always meant to be “a sanctuary for poetry — a safe haven,” says co-founder Anne Waldman, who introduced Smith on that February night forty-five years ago and served as director from 1968 to 1978. “[Our] vision for the future was an ever-growing inter-generational diverse community of poets and artists — and more women — in a supportive historic space that could bring young writers to confidence and attention. And honor the guest elders as well.”

More than five thousand poets, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and performers spanning several generations have not only read at the Project, but listened and honed their craft there, too. While some of the readers were anointed before they were handed the microphone, many found their feet by standing before the Project’s audiences, and even a too-brief list of the luminaries who have come through is testament to its power and necessity: Allen Ginsberg. Amiri Baraka. William S. Burroughs. John Ashbery. Alice Notley. Audre Lorde. John Wieners. Ammiel Alcalay. Ted Berrigan. Diane di Prima. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Laurie Anderson. Ishmael Reed. Lorenzo Thomas. Richard Hell. Dennis Cooper. Cecilia Vicuña. Kathy Acker. Ron Padgett. Jim Carroll. Anne Carson. Spalding Gray.

The Project is now in its fiftieth year — no small achievement given the thorny landscape, the uncertain fate of homes for radical, experimental work. Yet it is still thriving, remaining both anchor and propeller for the American literary vanguard, holding its ground alongside such other East Village stalwarts as the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, Mabou Mines, Theater for the New City, and Anthology Film Archives. “One of the beautiful things about the Poetry Project is its continuity, its presence,” says filmmaker and Anthology founder Jonas Mekas. At 93, Mekas (whose “Movie Journal” column ran in the Voice for nearly two decades, beginning in 1958) has seen the Poetry Project evolve — and last — from the start. “So many other projects, beautiful projects, have disappeared during the last fifty years. Bars, music places, cafés, Off-Broadway places where I used to go to see poets read. But Poetry Project is still here!” Or, as Eileen Myles, poet and artistic director of the Project from 1984 to ’86, tells it: “It still burns and it still breathes.”

This year, the Project will fete itself with a season featuring special anniversary events — “GIANT NIGHTS” — to honor its history as well as its present. As always, it still hosts up to three readings a week: Monday nights are dedicated to emerging voices, Wednesdays to established poets; Fridays are given to mixed-genre and multimedia works. The annual New Year’s Day Poetry Marathon, which began in 1974, is the stuff of legend. All readers, no matter their status or achievement, are paid for their appearances, and no attendee is ever turned away at the door for lack of money. Of the Project’s continuing success, Stacy Szymaszek, its current director, laughs and says: “We’re possibly the most successful and vital anti-bureaucracy in the history of America.”

As the story goes, the seeds for the Project first took root in 1965, after the dissolution of a popular open reading series at Café Le Metro on Second Avenue. As David Henderson, poet and co-founder of both the Society of Umbra and the Black Arts Movement, recalls, “The understandable desire for profits by the owners and proprietors of those coffee shops that housed the readings in the early days was a constant source of tension. Between the Les Deux Mégots and the Café Le Metro, where violence against some of the Umbra poets caused a walkout, it would be the Bowery Poets Co-op on 2nd Street and the Bowery that took the readings in.” Waldman remembers that it was also the sudden and terrible death of Frank O’Hara, in July 1966, that spurred a group of poets — including Paul Blackburn, Diane Wakoski, Carol Bergé, and Jerome Rothenberg — to found a more formal community. Soon they were given space to meet and read just up Second Avenue from Café Le Metro, at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery.

St. Mark’s Church sits on what was once the site of a private family chapel built sometime between 1651 and 1660 by Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor of New Netherland. In the late 1700s it was sold to the Episcopal Church, and in 1795 the construction of St. Mark’s began. It was Dr. William Norman Guthrie, rector from 1911 to 1937, who began offering the church as a platform for artists, writers, musicians, and activists. The ethic: An act of radical imagination isn’t so different in spirit from an act of faith. Martha Graham danced there. Local literary figures Edna St. Vincent Millay and Kahlil Gibran served on the church’s arts committee. W.H. Auden was on the vestry; William Carlos Williams, Amy Lowell, and Carl Sandburg all delivered lectures as part of the Sunday Symposium series. In the 1960s, the church’s then-leader, the Reverend Michael Allen, was keeping the artistic tradition alive. “The Project shared space with the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, Trotskyites,” recalls Waldman, describing it as “a microcosm of inspiration and cooperation. Outrider cultural interventions everywhere.”

Just a few years earlier, the Society of Umbra had also found a home at St. Mark’s. Archie Shepp, the freeform-jazz saxophone great, was curating public Sunday jazz concerts there. The Millennium Film Workshop, and its first director-filmmaker, Ken Jacobs, projected “underground” films that pushed the boundaries of cinema and sexuality, from artists like Jack Smith, Mekas, and Warhol, at a time when such work was deemed obscene and illegal to screen in the city. Ralph Cook, founder of Theater Genesis and one of the earliest forces in what became known as Off-Off-Broadway theater, was staging the early work of Shepard, then an unknown twenty-year-old. “Here, now, in Lower Manhattan, the phenomenon is taking place,” Cook wrote at the time, “the beginning, the genesis, of a cultural revolution.” In September of 1966, amid the creative and political turbulence that would define the spirit of the age, Paul Blackburn gave the first official reading under the aegis of “the Poetry Project.”

From the start, the Project was spinning new verses and forms from the likes of the Beats, the New York School, Black Mountain, and more. Myles remembers attending every event at the Project for ten years starting in the early 1970s, giving herself a “poetic education.” Two nights in particular burned themselves into her memory, if for different reasons. The first was a mind-blowing gas: “I was sitting in the audience when Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg were reading together, which was kind of poetry history. And Gregory Corso was in the audience, heckling. So Allen was putting Gregory in his place, and it was kind of amazing.” The second night, in 1977, was a more personal and radical kind of rock star moment: “I basically came out as a lesbian in a reading of love poems to somebody.”

The Project’s reputation for wild experimentation as well as intimate revelation always extended beyond literary circles, influencing generations of rock musicians. Although he was aware that Patti Smith, Richard Hell, and Jim Carroll had all read at the Project, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore says one of his most indelible memories of the place was a night of performances from free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor and poet Clark Coolidge. “Clark read nonstop for forty-five minutes, no uhs, umms, or any pauses whatsoever, as he recited a litany of seemingly non sequitur jazz-bop language lines that left me both confounded and intrigued at the layers of inspired consideration he brought to contemporary post-Beat poetry. Cecil began his reading from somewhere upstairs, chanting and howling as he slowly made his way to the podium, where he proceeded to sing/talk/hum lines of verbiage that dealt with the music of the spheres and the architectures of man’s own creative impulse.” It was, in Moore’s experience, “a very heavy night.”

The gravitational pull the Project exerts on its audiences, and younger poets in particular, has always been in force. Its discovery has been, for many writers, an epiphany that has felt like a homecoming. “When I was a young adult, the Poetry Project was the North Star to me, as it was to so many others,” says Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts, who curated the Monday-night readings in the Nineties. “I credit the bulk of my early poetic education to it — the amazing marathons, at which I would take note of the performers whom I admired most and then go seek their work; all the reading series, which radiated the kind of magic power that shapes a life.” Szymaszek remembers very clearly understanding that when she arrived in 2005 to take her first job there, “I knew that these were my people, and that this was my place.”

Place, of course, is not static; it must be reimagined as the cultural climate shifts. In times of political upheaval, questions arise: Why the poem, why the painting, why art at all? In the end, what could it possibly do for us? Questions, too, bubble up about radical acts — the wellsprings of vision — what they are, what they should produce, and where they will come from. In 1963, James Baldwin delivered a speech titled “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” in which he offered a clear-eyed view into the crucible of American culture: “Poets, by which I mean all artists, are finally the only people who know the truth about us… Art is here to prove and to make one bear — to help one bear — the fact that all safety is an illusion.” It follows that shedding this illusion is the moment when the poem, the painting — art — can find its purpose once again.

Szymaszek explains that it’s her reverence for the Project’s rich, radical history that impels her to keep its mandate pliable and moving forward. “The person in charge has to make sure it’s being responsive to the times, though you can’t predict what the times are going to be,” she says. “A big theme of our fiftieth year is how to simultaneously look forward and look back.” Although she and Project curators Simone White, Ariel Goldberg, and Judah Rubin have always set out to navigate new waters, they do so in part by continuing to honor those who charted the way. “It’s a giant ship,” White says of the Project, “and we’re trying to turn it.” White serves as the Project’s program director as well as the coordinator of the Wednesday-night reading series. Months before White took on the position, she wrote the milestone essay “Flibbertigibbet in a White Room/Competencies,” published on Harriet, the Poetry Foundation’s blog, about the ways in which poetry manages to marginalize and ghettoize poets. “It is total bullshit,” she wrote, “to enjoy being in a social or creative community that is segregated the way poetry is segregated.”

After its publication, the essay sparked conversations about whiteness in the poetry world, and White herself began to rethink her role as curator. “I started doing these panels of open dialogue that weren’t strictly poetry events, but they were primarily about community-building,” she says. Her first step to building and strengthening community: “asking people to be curious beyond their immediate environment.” To help trace the roots of experimental poetry more completely, White reached out to poet and scholar Tonya M. Foster and invited her to organize “GIANT NIGHT: UMBRA: a living archive,” an evening in celebration of the collective and its legacy, on December 14.

When Goldberg started at the Project, a guiding question was: “What would it look like if queer people were not the minority?” Goldberg curates the Friday-night series on cross-genre works and recently published a book, The Estrangement Principle, written in part as a response to the conundrum of labeling and defining “queer art,” of containing what is also a mode and means of resistance.

Goldberg sees giving a platform to cross-genre writer-artist collaborations at the Project as a way both to push the definitions of what a poem is (or should be) and to allow for true experimentation, of which there is so little left these days. Museums come with hefty ticket prices and subscriber demands; few performance venues in New York are able to support strange or seedling projects. “My dream is that this is actually a space where writing comes alive,” Goldberg says. “There’s something about sharing work and carrying it into a new context that you wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else.”

When asked about what he sees as the present role of the poet and of the Project, Rubin, who’s responsible for curating emerging voices, first answers philosophically: that poetry, having long embraced its own obsolescence, necessarily embraces the fact there’s always a future to its passing moment. “That’s how it finds its resonance,” he says. Then he answers more practically: “It’s important for everyone to be sharing space right now from disparate strands from the larger radical strand, and the first thing that has to be thought about is, what are these poets doing and saying about where we are in the world right now? That’s always been the case, but it’s more acutely [the case] now.”

“The Poetry Project has been and remains a vital New York center for formally inventive and politically challenging poetry that contests stultifying norms promoted by the mediocracy,” says language poet Charles Bernstein. Poet and program coordinator from 1984 to ’86 Patricia Spears Jones notes that “it strives to offer a place and space for poetry that is often not found, or shoved to the side, in academia, and it can do so because of a fierce independence. Sometimes that independence leads to obscurity, foolishness, or ahistoricality; most times it offers programmatic innovation, serious and substantive work, and moments of audacious beauty.” ?Myles, too, believes that the real power of the Project is a matter of words. “Whatever the American language is, and I think it’s really a loose holder of everyone who comes into America and changes the language, the Poetry Project always has gotten there first,” she says. “During the revolution of poetry in the twentieth century, the Poetry Project was dead center. I mean, the Poetry Project is just quicker than any other institution. It’s a canny, wily little place. It’s still deep in its mission, and that’s what’s so cool about it.”

The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church
131 East 10th Street