Open mic and music at the Bowery - and a Seamus Heaney poem on the subway
One of the great strengths of the Write Out Loud poetry gig guide is the possibility of organisers using it to “claim a date”, to avoid the sort of frustrating duplication that occurred last and, it seems, every Monday in New York, New York. The Bowery is one of the two go-to poetry open mics in that city; the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe being the much older of the two; both have open mic on a Monday, five minutes walk from each other. Frustrating indeed for a Brit who has travelled across the Atlantic to be there. Well, almost. The Bowery was founded by Bob Holman, pictured – Mr New York Poetry – in 2002, whereas the Nuyorican has been there for around 40 years, Allen Ginsberg calling it “the most integrated place on the planet”, presumably as it was the haunt of so many up-and-coming poets, artists, filmmakers and musicians.
How did I choose? I booked for the Nuyorican before realising Bob Holman was connected to the Bowery. He said he didn’t think they still did a Monday open mic. I sent two emails to the Nuyorican asking them to clarify. No replies were received. In any case, Rob Casper of the Library of Congress had recommended I meet Bob because of our shared interest in promoting poetry by whatever means, and both having a passion for the live poetry movement. That and Bolton Writer Out Loud Hilary Walker had raved about the Bowery when she read there some years ago. Good enough for me.
Bob Holman has handed the reins of the Bowery Poetry events to Nikhil Melnechuk, who hosted the evening superbly, creating the sort of ambience that encourages and supports new readers without patronising them. There were none of the high fives, ‘yo’s’ and finger clicking of the open-mics experienced in Washington DC. It felt almost British, so restrained was it.
But not for long, with the first reader, John Tamola’s accent - what I imagined as a broad Bronx – and broader frame lending powerful counterpoint to his words’ poignancy. Prose, with poetic leanings, about an abusive childhood, partly at the hands of the Catholic Christian Brothers, partly at his uncle’s, if I understood correctly. Then a descent into violence and, on one occasion, being stabbed three times in the back at school. Shades of Arthur Miller’s A View From a Bridge.
First reader, and he went on too long, though only in the strict three-minute sense. Nikhil gently reminded him that his time was “nearly up” and he shortened the reading but continued for a couple of minutes to bring it to an appropriate conclusion; and Nikhil sensibly allowed that.
For me, this is the essence of a well-run poetry night, aiming to encourage burgeoning talent rather than aggrandise the compere by macho timekeeping. Top marks Nikhil; top marks John Tamola, of whom I hope the Bowery – the world - hears more. Someone, please, encourage him to turn some of his words into poetry, as he surely has the talent for it and something to say. It is also an argument for allowing a broad definition of an open-mic poetry night, to allow prose from developing writers who might turn their words into verse.
And on, with – an unusual feature this – a three-piece band playing behind the poets, unless requested not to. I normally shun such affectations, but these three are magnificent in their musicianship and improvised interpretation of the unravellng poems. Adam Bonomo on piano, Tcheser Holmes on drums, and Achiles Novarro turning his trumpet into a sound effects lab with added musicality. Unfortunately into my ear from a couple of feet away, but a move across the room sorted that.
Natty dresser Jonathan Clarence was a charismatic performer, recent past winner of this club’s “best-of-the-evening” vote. The whole night was full of talented readers/writers, most of whose names was I unable to catch, my English English ear not yet attuned to the US English idiom and accents various. One of the easiest to catch and listen to was poet/photographer Anton Yakovlev, to whom I am grateful for the photos in the gallery of that night. His performance of a great two-voice set, with Shane Hanlon, one of the evening’s highlights, though was it stereotyping to give Russian-born Anton the Rasputin line?
Pianist Adam Bonomo then hit us with a blues number – something about “she’s got me” - on piano and voice that was simply stunning and hugely appreciated. More wanted but time ran on.
Guest poet Iris Cushing whose poem ‘Wyoming’ – a witty riff on the place name as gerund of ‘to Wyom(e)’ – winner of the 2013 Furniture Press Poetry Prize, is an editor at Argos Books and Circumference: Poetry in Translation. Her poetry is linguistically playful: “I get excited when a poem is so curious about its own limits that it risks complete failure.”
She had decided to theme her set as “poems that bring out the beauty of a winter’s day”; it was and they did. New York had had heavy snow all the previous day but it was sunny, if incredibly cold that Monday. My favourite line of hers was “You don’t really know how much of the world is surface until every surface has snow on it”. How apposite! As I gaze from my Washington DC window writing this, each tree branch, every electricity and phone cable carries four to five inches of snow.
Cushing’s reading though, left me wondering: are we listening to a performance, a reading, or both? Does how a poem is read to us matter if we can read it on the page later, or have people paid to be entertained, thus deserve more than a sonorous reading? Is an inflected monotone the best way to deliver page poetry? Simon Armitage is a master of the latter, having expressed his view that poetry should be read out in a neutral voice rather than being “performed”; although in his recent Washington DC reading he spoke of, in writing for the stage, being conscious of the need to entertain the audience. Hmm.
Whichever, Cushing’s wordplayfulness deserves a visit by lovers of experimentation as fun rather than look-at-me cleverness. (the Bowery describes itself as a word playground.) Her work is well worth a trip onto the internet and into her published pages.
The club’s weekly guest has her/his set in the middle of the evening. In a UK context, that can break up proceedings such that people drift off before the rest of the list gets chance to read, and can be frustrating. I have seen guests leave without listening to the remaining readers, which is the height of poetry bad manners. Here it seems to work, not least as there are no half-time breaks as we are used to, so less motivation to drift off. All the socialising happens at the bar beforehand anyhow.
To those whose names I missed, apologies. (Please go to the gallery and add your name to your photo, email me with your details and corrections or, better, sign up on Write Out Loud to join in the online community there.) There wasn’t a duff poet or performance, though stand-outs for me where Ciena, Rhett Ariston, Juan Caneggi: “They tell me that I fall in love too much” and “Was I too much of not enough?”; and Rachael Richman, winner of that night’s best-poet vote (everyone gets a slip of paper on which to cast theirs and it is friendly enough, unlike a slam).
I voted for Rachael in spite of her G-W-Bushing of the English language: “I am going to poemify a short play.” Poemification aside, her play/poem/song was beautiful, lyrical, entrancing, with hints of WH Auden in her: “What do I know about love?” Rachael, you “burnt us, clean as bones”.
Bowery Poetry was founded in 2005 by Bob Holman. He’d been away at a screening of his film, Language Matters, about endangered languages, returning in time for a very short poem and a quick chat. The club spends some of its time as a burlesque venue with the poetry crowd having use of it for several nights a week.
To sum up, a great night, very friendly, excellent compere, top poetry and great music, with ample encouragement for newbies and for experimentation. Not as ethnically diverse as I had expected after DC, and I wonder if there is a divide somewhere, a theme to which I shall return when I write again about the Washington scene.
Postscript: on the subway later, I was delighted to find myself sitting beside a poster of Seamus Heaney’s Scaffoldng poem, part of New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority and American Poetry Society’s Poetry in Motion project, rather like London’s Poems on the Underground.
The Poet in New York open mic at the Bowery Poetry Cub with featured poets and music. Vote for favourite poem on the night. UK poets need not be intimidated as it is very open and welcoming. $10 admission at the door. Arrive 20.30 to sign up for 10 open mic slots, first come, first served.
PHOTOGRAPH: ANTON YAKOVLEV
Apologies to Bob Holman for failing to mention both his poem and the box sculpture that appears in his photo and others on our Bowery gallery. As Bob diplomatically reminded me:
My poem that night was by Pedro Pietri, whose "box" (from the Poet Sculpture by Sam Jablon that was the backdrop that evening. Pedro was unnuyoriqueno autentico, and I was reciting the signature poem he did for The United States of Poetry, the last show I did for PBS.