Essay

Well Rooted

The Poetry Project has provided a crucial space for 50 years.
Image of New York street in the 1970s

Every successful town or neighborhood relies on third places, informal public spaces such as beauty salons, bars, coffee shops, and parks where people gather regularly to hang out and chat, independent of home and work. Since its founding in 1966, the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery in Manhattan has embodied such a place. Created as an extension of the type of coffeehouse reading series that proliferated on the Lower East Side in the early 1960s, the Poetry Project offers resources to poets, performers, and artists in the form of workshops, readings, and special events, making it a hub for contemporary poetry among both newcomers and regulars.

Now Wave Books has released What Is Poetry? (Just Kidding, I Know You Know): Interviews from The Poetry Project Newsletter (1983–2009) to celebrate the venue’s half-century anniversary. Edited by Anselm Berrigan, the former artistic director of the Poetry Project, the book collects 26 years of cross-generational interviews of artists who've convened and collaborated in this legendary spot, including Akilah Oliver, Eileen Myles, Alex Katz, Ron Padgett, Maggie Nelson, Fred Moten, and many more.

At 440 pages, even the heft of the book speaks to the endurance of the Poetry Project, a remarkable longevity given the social, cultural, and economic transformations that have taken place in Lower Manhattan and in the United States in general. Even as it celebrates community, the book acknowledges that “community,” as Berrigan writes, is “the kind of term that often implies everything and nothing simultaneously, with the bottom falling out of the word depending on who happens to be wielding it.” 

The majority of these 38 conversations consist of poets interviewing poets in person, eye to eye and I to I, individuals interacting in a room together. The dialogues are a joy to read—intimate, spontaneous, and jargon-free, frequently funny and full of playfulness and weird serendipity. 

“What famous poets do you think have been overrated?" Kenneth Koch asks Allen Ginsberg in 1995. “Me, ha ha ha,” Ginsberg replies before continuing. “Old ones, I don't know, as a poet I haven't seen much of Emerson that I liked. Longfellow, obviously, but then maybe somebody will come back to Longfellow.” 

The interviewers themselves often speak in and of poetry. When Anne Waldman talks to the visual artist Red Grooms—known for his bright, colorful, chaotic pop art constructions of urban life—Waldman states, “The subway car is powerful—desperate and amazing.” Grooms replies, “I don’t actually try to make things worse than I think they are.” 

Victor Hernández Cruz says in his chat with Sheila Alson, “We are really language. That's what the Bible says. Spanish or English. What is important is how the blood is circulating. The salt of the air in the vision.” 

A few notable exceptions to the face-to-face rule appear in the form of old-fashioned epistolary give-and-takes. Barbara Henning and Haryette Mullen conducted their conversation by way of postcards and letters for several weeks in June 1996, leading to what Henning calls “a rather disjointed” but still engaging exchange. Henning closes her first postcard by saying “I guess these are enough questions to generate a series of postcards. Love & all that. Barbara.” And Mullen concludes her side of the exchange with a letter that begins, “Writing in fragments seems to be a very contemporary response to the postmodern distraction, the channel-surfing attention span, our fractured sense of time, on the one hand. People I know, poets and academics, are writing literally on the fly, taking their laptops aboard airplanes.” 

Similarly, Judith Goldman carried out her 1997 interview of Alice Notley (who by then was living in Paris) through a series of letters. In this exchange, Notley proclaims, “All poetry is marginalized, not just experimental poetry,” which reads as both correct and paradoxical in a book about a place whose reason for being is to emphasize the centrality of poetry or at least to set up a kind of stage where the scene of poetry can unfold.

The title of the collection comes from an incisive mock interview between Charles North and Paul Violi in November 1983. Initially, the two sat down with a tape recorder, but, as Violi put it, “I could say nothing worthwhile, let alone write an essay.” This block inspired North to put their chat together as a questionnaire that Violi left blank, for the answers were already built into the questions. This sly piece sets the tone for the rest of the book with its question, “What does ‘scene’ mean?” continuing, “Seriously, if scene means ‘where it is’ and the ‘it’ is poetry, does that mean the reading spots …? Or does it mean something vaguer, something like The State of The Art?” 

The compendium charts a shape-shifting map of the literary landscape and the literary citizens who—with their work, their bodies, their acts and actions—comprise and create that territory in a continuous but ever-changing physical space. Strikingly, the concerns that poets and artists continue to have in 2017 crop up prominently across these conversations. The travails of careerism, the vicissitudes of big institutions, the perils of publishing, the inexorability of gentrification and an in-built sense of loss (was the scene better before I got here?) all weave their way in and out of these talks.

Reminders of the seismic shifts that have occurred in the East Village environs of St. Mark’s pepper virtually every entry. In a 1998 interview, Lisa Jarnot asks Bernadette Mayer about her decision to move to the Lower East Side in the 1960s. “Did you know people here or did you just move here?” Mayer replies, “No. I just moved here because I knew it was inexpensive.” These days, the average rent for a studio apartment in the East Village would set you back $2,200–$3,200, and it ranks in the top ten neighborhoods in New York City for the highest rents. By the time the book gets to Marcella Durand’s 2004 interview with Anne Waldman, Durand refers to the poetic community in New York City as “anxious and beleaguered,” and Waldman points out, “What is scary is the great capitalistic maw and the sense that other cultures will all be ultimately subsumed in it.” 

In his perceptive introduction, Berrigan writes that he sees the collection as “not a linear chronicle of an era, but it is a chronicle nonetheless, an assemblage verging on accidental chorus that presents ideas and discussion about poetry in the charged words of the poets, not in unreadable academic speak, and not in insulated literary terms divorced from the broader ground of the world and its inexhaustible complexities.” 

The resulting selection is immensely humanizing, bringing down to earth and making accessible a site and a set of people that can seem layered in—and even obscured by—myth. Ken Jordan notes in the introduction to his 1992 interview with Mayer, for instance, that she’s been called “a semi-deity” by the San Francisco Chronicle. Yet his conversation with her for the newsletter provides him “with an excuse to sit with the semi-deity, drink a few beers, turn on the tape recorder and ask questions.” Many of these interactions occur in people's apartments on the Lower East Side or in nearby bars, Chinese restaurants, or cafes, affording not only a document of the Poetry Project itself but also of the neighborhood. 

Consistent throughout each conversation remains the sense of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s as a specific place. But, as with the best poems, its specificity gives it universality and its subjects are—like the subjects of poetry—“everything, however fleeting those particulars may be,” says Berrigan. Or as Stan Brakhage says to Jarnot, “you can’t be universal unless you’re literally well-rooted where you are.” 

Ray Oldenburg, the urban sociologist who pioneered the term third place, suggests that these community spaces stimulate and satisfy by becoming zones where democracy, civic engagement, and civil society thrive. Reading this collection feels like hanging out at your own favorite third place. You’re achieving all these high-minded goals, sure, but you barely realize it because you're too busy being surrounded by all these fascinating characters—listening to their words and joining in their (frequently very serious) fun.

Originally Published: April 12th, 2017

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...