Get Me to the Church on Time

Left: The Poetry Project's 50th anniversary gala. Right: Poetry Project director Stacy Szymaszek. (All photos: Andrew Durbin)

FOR FIFTY YEARS, the Poetry Project—long housed at Saint Mark’s Church in the East Village—has, as Allen Ginsberg put it, “burned like red hot coal in New York’s snow.” In more prosaic terms, it has been one of the epicenters of American poetry and literature, where nearly every major poet (and an artist here or there) has kept the coals burning with a twenty-minute set on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday evening. A thrifty institution from the start, the Project, as it’s known, has been a site of alliances, contention, protest, and antics: Allen van Newkirk staged a fake-shooting of Kenneth Koch as he read in 1968, and Gregory Corso heckled a disheveled Robert Lowell in 1977 (“Robert, you left out that great line about paranoid!”). There’s no poetry without a good tiff, and the Project has provided the occasion for many episodes of high drama and sweet solidarity since its inception at the raucous end of the 1960s.

New York’s poetry’s grand pooh-bah celebrated its golden anniversary a few weeks back with its first-ever gala in honor of its second director, the poet Anne Waldman, who, by most accounts, invented—or at least saved—the Project through her indomitable drive to Make It New and Keep It Afloat. She steered the poets through the hair-raising 1970s, when government money wasn’t forthcoming and poetry’s best friend was Michael Allen, a pastor who opened the Church up to the poets, artists, and dancers since they were, in his words, “doing theology.” Poets do clean up when the occasion demands it, and many did as the evening began with a passed hors d’oeuvres dinner in a packed Parish Hall, as phones were raised into the air for crowd-shots of the sizable cadre who gathered together to toast a second home.

Left: Poetry Project board president Camille Rankine (left) and Anna Moschovakis (right). Right: Ron Padgett speaking with Pierre Joris.

The night brought together a wide-ranging group, from alumni and current members of the Project’s rotating curatorial team—all of whom seemed relieved that the evening had gone on without a hitch—to well-known voices in the New York scene, including John Giorno, husband-and-wife duo Pierre Joris and Nicole Peyrafitte, Ron Padgett (one of the gala’s toasters and a Project mainstay for god knows how long), artist Carolee Schneemann (preparing for her Lifetime Achievement award in Venice), and Project board president and poet (they’re all poets here) Camille Rankine. Managing director Nicole Wallace, program director Simone White, and director Stacy Szymaszek all seemed particularly elated with the anniversary turnout, which coincided with Szymaszek’s own ten-year mark as director. Szymaszek could be found everywhere, beaming for a selfie with a fellow poet or two, including some of the evening’s performers, Laurie Anderson, Yoshiko Chuma, and Dane Terry.

With a brief dinner behind us, the poets made their way into the Church’s chapel, where the Project hosts its famous New Year’s Day marathon reading every year. (If you have not been, cure your hangover with the poetry, which runs all day and well into the night.) The performances were hosted by longtime impresario Bob Holman, an ambulant chatterbox who leaned dramatically into the mic to remind us of nights and readings past, including Giorno’s poetry radio station, which he broadcast from the church tower and where, it was said by Giorno, that the voice of the last director-general of New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant, could occasionally be heard. “They say he’s buried in the wall,” Holman said, nodding to the west side, where Ariana Reines, Lucy Ives, Charity Coleman, and others sat quietly, mostly in anticipation of Anderson, the first performer, who sang a curious short story she wrote about visiting the Amish.

Left: Dia Felix, Charity Coleman, and Matt Longabucco. Right: John Giorno.

Anderson, Eleni Sikelianos, and Ron Padgett toasted Waldman, who—as everyone made clear—really needed no introduction, since she was a friend, mentor, educator, or simply an admirer (Waldman is an avid devotee of all things poetry, of course) to nearly everyone in the room. Chuma deconstructed the evening’s format by turning it into a dance, or performance art, or poetry, I wasn’t quite sure which, that began with some movements at the podium and a leaping engagement with her rapt and perhaps pleasantly confused audience as a cellist and pianist accompanied her movement. Before Waldman could take the stage, the performances closed with Latasha Natasha Diggs, a sound poet and the author of the much-loved Twerk (Belladonna Books) who channeled the Project’s polyvocality in a cascading poem that nodded to Waldman’s own multi-tongued collating poetics.

And finally, Waldman, who took to the stage to command, in her indomitable voice, the audience before her with a long, somewhat meandering but always invigorating speech about poetry’s “plot to save the world” against itself. And when that fails (all must fail in poetry, right?), we will simply welcome the jellyfish world to come, with its “delicious slurp at the end of time.”

In the meantime, she reminded us, quoting her Buddhist teacher, “Stay with it, or you’ll miss something.”