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Insane Podium & Eurythmic Rituals: A Crucial History of The Poetry Project and St. Mark’s Church

By Harriet Staff

Just up at The Poetry Project’s website is “Insane Podium,” a long-awaited history from poet and former Project labourer (2002-2006) Miles Champion. By no means an attempt at full-on comprehensiveness (how could it be?), this history is still the only one of its kind, focusing specifically on the founding of St. Mark’s Church as a center for the arts in New York’s East Village (though that neighborhood was still called the Lower East Side when Paul Blackburn & co. began to gather the like-minded for readings circa 1965–and certainly when the “decidedly modernist” Dr. William Norman Guthrie was assembling dancers for “eurythmic ritual[s]” in the Parish Hall in the twenties and thirties). Champion’s piece details these periods; discusses the Café Metro days of the early sixties and the Artistic Directorships of everyone from Anne Waldman to Eileen Myles to Ed Friedman, Anselm Berrigan, and the current AD Stacy Szymaszek; the various arts projects that collected at the Church; Bernadette Mayer’s famous workshops; the fire of 1978 and the fundamental rebuilding and restoration efforts of the Preservation Youth Project; significance of The World in the mimeo revolution; and much more. Did you know that Gordon Matta-Clark “planted a rosebush just inside the church gates,” and later “enclos[ed] it in a metal grid cage sculpture (‘The Rosebush’)”? Yes, still there. The beginnings of things:

In 1919, Guthrie assembled an Arts Committee comprised entirely of people who lived locally, including Kahlil Gibran, Vachel Lindsay and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Martha Graham danced at the church in 1930, as did Ruth St. Denis in 1933, with Guthrie reciting St. Denis’ poems between what the New York Times described as her “exotic religious dances.” (Isadora Duncan almost danced at the church in 1922, but the event was canceled at the last minute—as was a later talk Duncan was scheduled to give—due to the intervention of William T. Manning, the Bishop of New York; the bare feet of certain dancers, it seems, were less acceptable than others.) William Carlos Williams lectured in the Sunday Symposium series in April 1926, and incoming rector in 1943, the Reverend Richard E. McEvoy, introduced a visual arts program. When Reverend Allen arrived in 1959, W.H. Auden was a parishioner (he lived two blocks south on St. Mark’s Place and had a favorite pew at the back of the church) and the Civil Rights Movement was at its height, active nearby in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. (Allen would ride the “freedom buses” through the South in the early ’60s, and in late 1972—two years after stepping down as rector at St. Mark’s—he would visit North Vietnam as part of a peace delegation invited by the Vietnam Committee of Solidarity with the American People to address human rights issues in the area.)

The later beginnings:

Various poets read at St. Mark’s in the months leading up to The Poetry Project’s official founding: Harold Dicker, Ree Dragonette, Anselm Hollo, David Ignatow, Jackson Mac Low, Frank Murphy, M.C. Richards and, on April 28, 1966, John Ashbery, who had recently returned from a 10-year sojourn in Paris, and was introduced by Ted Berrigan.

The task Reverend Allen had set himself was to provide an institutional framework in which both arts and community projects could flourish; he knew funding was necessary if the church’s arts programs were to survive. A month or so after Ashbery’s reading, Reverend Allen received a phone call: Harry Silverstein, a professor of sociology at the New School for Social Research, wanted to know if St. Mark’s could use $90,000.

The more obscure, material beginnings:

Lest it be thought that The World was simply another little magazine flopping into an already glutted market, Anne Waldman has pointed out that The World filled a very real gap at the time, arriving as it did when some of the most vital little magazines from earlier in the decade had either ceased publication or were in the process of winding down. The 13th and final issues of Ed Sanders’ Fuck You / a magazine of the arts and Ted Berrigan’s “C” Magazine had appeared in June ’65 and May ’66, respectively, and The Floating Bear would only appear irregularly between 1964 and its final issue in 1971, this after coeditors Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones had cranked out an impressive 25 issues in 1961–62.

The World would go on to enjoy an extraordinarily long lifespan for a little magazine, with its last issue, #58, appearing in fall 2002, almost 36 years after the first. (It was not, however, published continuously through these years: after being put on hiatus in 1983, it was revived in 1992 by the Project’s then Director, Ed Friedman, under the auspices of an editing and publishing workshop led by Lewis Warsh.) The World, too, would appear almost monthly in its early years: there was a good chance that, if you heard a poem you particularly liked at a Poetry Project reading, you would find it in the magazine four weeks later. Notable issues from a consistently strong run include the “Special Translations Issue” (#27, April ’73), guest-edited by Ron Padgett and with a cover by Rory McEwen, and two sprawling, information-packed issues of reviews, interviews and commentary (#29, April ’74 and #30, July ’76) edited by Waldman, with covers by Philip Guston and Larry Rivers, respectively. (The World would remain a stapled/collated affair until issue #45 [1992], with all subsequent issues published as perfect-bound journals.)

The nine-hole Gestetner mimeograph machine that The Poetry Project acquired in 1967 would be put to good use by a great many poet–editors and poet–publishers over the years. Scratching only the very surface, we find: Joanne Brahinsky (12th Street Rag), Susan Cataldo (Little Light), Larry Fagin (Adventures in Poetry and Un Poco Loco), Greg Masters & Michael Scholnick (Mag City), Maureen Owen (Telephone), Carter Ratcliff (three one-shot magazines: Reindeer, Seaplane and Cicada), Harris Schiff (The Harris Review), Simon Schuchat (The 432 Review and Caveman) and Tom Weigel (Tangerine).

In characteristic humour (“The Poetry Project is in rude health”) (“chalking up more than three years [as Newsletter editor] is thought to be irreparably damaging to one’s health”) (ow), Champion has titled the piece after Clark Coolidge’s comment that “They had an insane podium.” He’s also managed to snag (or scan) some insanely rare photographs to boot. They might not even be in the archives, now stored (literally, stored, just try to get at ‘em) at the Library of Congress. There’s a lot here, faithfully sourced from the likes of Larry Fagin, Anne Waldman, Steve Clay, Bob Holman, Daniel Kane, author of All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s, and more. “Insane Podium” is a great read, helps to situate the Project firmly in the loose bedrock that is literary history; and certainly opens up the possibility for further study….

Image at top: The Della Robbia Eurythmic Dance Ritual, c. 1923–32. Courtesy St. Mark’s Church Archives.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, June 5th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.