Yes it's still true, "The Poetry Project burns like red hot coal in New York's snow," as the quote from Ginsberg says. The Poetry Project is a rare bird—a forty-plus-year-old non-profit organization whose efforts are devoted entirely to poetry. How cool is that?
This month marks the culmination of the pilot year of The Poetry Project's "Emerge-Surface-Be" initiative. Funded by a generous grant from the Jerome Foundation, "Emerge-Surface-Be," or, "ESB" for short, pairs emerging poets with established mentors. This year's participants included Krystal Languell, working with Anselm Berrigan; Guillermo Felice Castro with Patricia Spears Jones; and Rangi McNeil paired with Edwin Torres.
For nine months, under the Poetry Project's wings, ESB-ers work closely with mentors in a learning environment that culminates in the completion of a specific project, and a featured reading at the Project's high-profile Monday Night Reading Series.
We checked in with Rangi McNeil and Edwin Torres about their experiences.
HARRIET STAFF: Hi Rangi and Edwin! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I'm wondering, what was your first meeting like?
RANGI MCNEIL: Edwin was a stranger to me. And as someone who despite a thick & well-versed veneer of gregariousness spends an (almost) inordinate amount of time alone I was shit-a-brick nervous ahead of our lunch at the Chelsea Market. But I was also so thoroughly grateful for having been chosen (I'd burst into tears when I received Stacy Szymaszek's call) that I did my level best to lead with gratitude rather than anxiety & her constant consort, discombobulation.
And Edwin spoke so comprehensively (& gently) about my work- the present, the present perfected & the future perfect. He asked after my aspirations & intentions & as I had pondered similar questions (nauseatingly since I'd decided to attend grad school in 1999) I had answers & questions & my own wish list for the Fellowship. It was clear to each that the stranger with whom he was about to disembark would do so with more than the requisite seriousness of purpose required for - I almost wrote a play on "a successful outcome" but what I wish to express is something much more inchoate & less commercial & much more vital (in order for one's true work to be excavated), but those words don't come to me. And I can't speak for Edwin, but I suspected we wouldn't be strangers for very long despite fondness for that level of person-to-person interaction.
EDWIN TORRES: We hadn't met before and exchanged assorted emails of gratitude and first steps and looking forwards. We arranged to meet at The Chelsea Market, where I was freelancing at the time. I was nervous to live up to what was expected as 'mentor'…it didn't really sink in that someone was going to be listening (one hopes) to my direction until I made my way down the elevator, through the throng of tourists that populate this mini-city called Chlesea Market, (have you been…it's like an underground city on the ground floor, a densely packed lair of manufactured nuggets and catalog bonbons) and saw him at the entrance. Until actually coming face to face with him, Rangi McNeil was a name attached to these powerful poems I'd read…and now, here he was. Spry, quick-witted, hilarious…I'd say we became comfortable quickly, a natural rapport developed…an affirmation of poetry's ability to reach through the unknown…how dramatic!
HS: What have you learned throughout your mentorship together, along the way?
ET: What I've learned…to trust the process. There were times throughout the year where we'd try and meet but something came up. I think we were diligent in trying to maintain a steady cycle..I wanted to make sure there was some sort of check-in along the way…at the same time, it was important to give the writing its natural course. So for me, there was a balance of letting Rangi alone to let life work its way through him and the writing. And then I'd send an email after a month maybe and say, what's up…or else he'd send a note. The evolution of how life affects your writing is a necessary process that can't be sped up. It's sort of normal to say, but easy to forget how the time of your evolution is specific to the focus of your message — your communication or the comfort in your need to get the message out…is what you gain over time. I think I just made something sound more complicated than it is, but I'll leave it for the mess it is to allow for multi-layered interpretations. "Embrace the mess," Marjorie Welish once told me in her mentorship role to me…many years earlier.
What you learn in any encounter can sometimes fill a book (or pass a stranger, huh), so it's hard to isolate one for the purpose of this interview — but something else that struck me was a connection again to family. Rangi's stories about his upbringing and his connection to family brought to my awareness my own, already deeply rooted connections, and helped me understand how important to re-visit what it is that moves you. How, underneath the speed and motion that shapes the experiment (in language I'm talking about but could apply in general), maintaining the core will get you further beyond...something like that.
RM: I continue to learn how to admit that I am desirous of an audience (for my work & self) with decreasing levels of anxiety & self-consciousness.
HS: What's one particularly memorable experience that you've had while working together?
ET: Well, I don't remember one experience specifically...it was the succession of meetings that accumulated the momentum. Though there were plenty of email exchanges, it seems as though the course of this fellowship covered a territory laid over a sector of Manhattan encompassing midtown to Chelsea...a 2-mile radius from west 23rd street to Grand Central Station and Rockefeller Center. Between Rangi living in Brooklyn and me living upstate in Beacon, Rangi very generously allowed us to arrange our live meetings around my commuting/freelance schedule. One time during summer, I had my 7 year old boy with me at an open-air atrium on 42nd Street...once we met upstate at a coffee shop in Beacon...once at Union Square...there was no one experience that stood out. The drama of living in New York has its own inherent theater on a daily basis. I believe we were able to suss out the offers of the universe going back and forth among our meetings — the palimpset of a city aware of its transient possibilities, laid over the conundrums of two equally misguided nomads.
RM: A few weeks into the Fellowship, we were both participating in the Howl Festival in Tompkins Square Park. I was deep in the line up & as poet after poet took the stage & recited his/her work, I became increasingly convinced that my participation in the festival amounted to Bad-Idea-Jeans (do you recall that SNL skit) - so categorically different from my work was the work shared. My turn came, I spoke my poems into the microphone trying to remember to breathe, dashing off stage once done. Offstage Edwin came over to me & said "thank you, you brought us back to poetry."
To learn more about Emerge-Surface-Be, visit: http://poetryproject.org/programs/emerge-surface-be.