A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I’d been back in Washington for a month when, standing by the magazine racks at Tower Records, I spotted someone I knew on the cover of High Times. It was Maggie Estep, a writer in New York who didn’t drink, smoke pot, or take acid, and whose only remaining connection to drugs, however tenuous, was her passion for poppy seed bagels. Well, that and caffeine, which was hardly enough reason for High Times to put her on the cover of their magazine. I stared at Maggie’s picture and, for one brief moment, considered dropping her a line to find out how she was doing and, specifically, if she’d fallen off the wagon and was now boozing it up and smoking gigantic spliffs like a rebellious suburban teenager. But, as I was suffering from writer’s block at the time, even the crafting of a simple letter of inquiry was beyond me. So instead I picked High Times off the rack and browsed through it in an attempt to discover just why she was on the cover.
As it turned out there was a story inside on the poetry scene in New York. Maggie was one of the big names in that scene and had been one of the featured readers when MTV presented a poetry reading as part of their Unplugged series. I had thought the article would be about what Maggie and other New York writers did to get high, and whether or not they wrote while they were high. But after scanning the article I saw nothing at all about drugs. It soon became apparent that the reason Maggie was on the cover of this particular magazine was that poetry, after having disappeared from the public eye when the beatnik era ended, was now considered “cool” again.
But while Maggie was still writing poetry I had given it up—as had a lot of other writers I knew—because along with its new found popularity came a lot of ugliness. Though at first it was nice to have a larger audience for our work, it was soon clear that most of that audience was there for all the wrong reasons.
Before the media attention one of the truly “cool” things about the poetry scene—when I was gainfully employed, anyway—was that it was far removed from the world of commerce, and as such contrasted very well with the art world where the big news was never how good a painting was but how much it sold for. And what turned poetry into something that could sell was the birth of a horrible beast called The Poetry Slam, which transformed poetry readings from a presentation of an art form and into a gruesome competition among fragile egos.
At first the Slam was a joke. The winner was paid six dollars, which made it something of an offshoot of the $1.98 Beauty Pageant; it was something for drunken writers to do on a boring Friday night after spending the rest of the week alone at the typewriter. I did one myself soon after I’d arrived in New York, going up against Carl Watson, a friend of mine who—and I’m trying to be objective here—is probably the most talented writer in New York. What we remember most about the evening is not who won, but that afterwards we went out and drank to even greater excesses than we had in the hours leading up to the Slam. That and walking out on a ridiculously steep bar tab. (In New York it’s become something of a tradition to walk away when the damage done at a bar is just too much to deal with in a drunken state of mind. Bartenders don’t mind up there; they know that if you’re a real drinker—and if you run a bar tab up over the two hundred dollar mark, you obviously are a real drinker—then you’ll be back when the next paycheck comes in to settle your accounts. Whereas in Washington they’ll chase you all the way out to P.G. County. No one seems to trust anyone else here.)
Carl and I being for the most part—and despite our drinking habits—fairly sane people, starting avoiding the poetry slam scene, the major venue of which was a place in the East Village called The Nuyorican Poets’ Café. The Café, though at first a pleasant and unpretentious place to go to on a Friday night, had become unbearably “hip.” People began going there not because “cool” things were going on but because it was a “cool” place to be. It had become to poetry what CBGB’s was to music: a place where some good things had happened early on, but which gave way to the simple fostering of an image—an image, however empty, of innovation and sophistication which, most importantly, could be sold to the media. It was a classic example of the triumph of style over substance.
Needless to say, a good number of people ate it up, including a lot of people who saw themselves as writers. They began to see the poetry slam as serious business and went about rehearsing, trying to improve their delivery and developing strategies on the best way to win. It wasn’t long before the thing that was most important to these people was not the poem itself, but its performance, thus bringing about an obnoxious proliferation of people who would either scream and yell their way through their horribly written poems, or else attempt to act them out like first year drama students.
To them the slam was a way of becoming a star in the growing poetry scene. To me, however, this was just about the most pathetic ambition imaginable for anyone who considered himself a writer, and after that first slam I never ventured to do another. I took to heart the advice of Max Blagg, the poet who did a commercial for The Gap which got heavy airplay for several months. He told me at a reading, for which we were getting well paid, “Don’t bother with this bloody nonsense unless there’s decent money involved.” He was echoing Samuel Johnson’s statement, made some two hundred years ago, that “no one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” So I stopped doing readings unless it was for an event arranged by friends of mine—in which case I knew it would be an enjoyable evening. Or if I was getting paid.
I had been going back to visit Washington regularly while I was living in New York. It didn’t seem at all like the same place where I grew up, a place where people would fuck with you for reasons out of some pulp western—reasons like “this town ain’t big enough for the two of us, pilgrim,” or “you crossed my line of vision, motherfucker.” In New York people accept it that there just isn’t enough space; they’re used to being crowded in like fish in a tin can. Washington, however, still has some of the frontier mentality that there’s territory to be had—and that you’ve got to fight to get your share. It’s like “Barter Town” from the Mad Max movies—that horrible hellhole where people are simple commodities and a person’s “soul” was merely a bizarre expression introduced by some peace loving cult leader—the sort of mild mannered svengali who would bid you to “turn the other cheek” and who, while nailed to the crucifixion tree, would lament, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Although I’m not at all a religious person, I’d always looked at Washington, my hometown, as being a kind of “pagan place,” where the supreme being was a golden calf: a place which, to bring us up to more recent times, was bypassed by the idealism of the sixties. Because while sixties era Washingtonians did deck themselves in love beads, then smoke pot or drop acid before heading down to Georgetown, their major concern was still making it big with the almighty dollar. Washington’s hippies, save for a few sincere misfits, were weekend hippies, and as such were seduced not by the substance of these radical times, but by the style. As for the substance Washingtonians went for—well again, that was something from out of the wild west. Which is to say that the only thing Washingtonians believed in then—as well as now—was that two headed dog of money and sex. And with this in mind one would have to consider it a kind of pre-twelve step denial to try to refute, as did some residents a few years ago, that the initials “D.C.” could appropriately be said to stand for “Dodge City.”
But Washington, during my periodic escapes from New York, didn’t seem at all like a “Dodge City” or a “Barter Town.” I suppose my being here on what were essentially vacations had a lot to do with this false impression—that and dumb luck as my visits never coincided with things like the riot in Mt. Pleasant or the situation in Adams Morgan when that disgruntled security guard was shooting people from his car. Furthermore, it was during my trips to Washington when things would go crazy in New York: I missed the last of the Tompkins Square riots, the subway crash caused by a drunken train operator, and then, just this past fall, the mass murder on the Long Island Railroad where the killer left behind that ominous note detailing his “reasons for this.” Finally, I was never in Washington long enough to get a real taste of the city, since all I did on these trips was meet my friends for drinks at our old hangouts or go to parties where a strange mix of people seemed to take to one another like New York art scene denizens to black clothes and pony tails. And so with a little bit of wishful thinking, and poor research that consisted solely of going to bars and parties, I rashly came to the conclusion that Washington was now a place where people knew how to get along.
What was perhaps most responsible for this specious conclusion was the party in Washington my friend Neal had, the driving purpose of which was to unveil a painting of an obscure character from Moby Dick. The concept of this party might have seemed, at first, like the sort of fanciful notion that would come out of the head of a fictional character—a character created by an author who’d spent way too many of his daylight hours in writers’ workshops, and who’d spent an even more absurd amount of time watching PBS literary profiles. But that wasn’t the case here as Neal had come up with this idea after watching, of all things, an episode of Baywatch.
Neal, who had something of an obsession for the work of Herman Melville, had commissioned a painting from Dave Ellis, an up and coming artist from Richmond. While the image of a bikini clad woman faded into the credits at the end of Baywatch, Neal decided that the best way to bring this work of art into the world was to have a huge party with an abundance of food, drink, and beautiful women. When I spoke to him over the phone from New York I suggested that he hire some dancing girls—some sort of entertainment that would keep the proceedings from going too far in the direction of high culture, something that would keep things honest. I knew that in Washington any event with even the slightest measure of “culture” would inevitably make a turn towards the pretentious. But he declined to implement my suggestion.
“Listen, we don’t need strippers,” he said, then added, “I know what you’re trying to do…but believe me, I can pull this off. This party will be both classy and unpretentious.” And what he decided was to have a fiddle band provide music and me a poetry reading.
I was skeptical. I’d seen people have a good time at a cultural event, but only in New York, where I had hooked up with a group of writers who called themselves “The Unbearables.” This loosely knit group—though perhaps “knit” is too strong a word for the connection within the group, as “unraveled” is the word that best describes them—was the antithesis of the New York slam crowd.
The Unbearables had no patience for the careerism of the slam people, and given the choice of going to some book party where we might network with publishers and editors or going out to the Homestead bar to drink beer and play pool, we would inevitably choose the latter. And where other literary groups were organizing events that would pay homage to our elders in the poetry scene, we were organizing events the sole purpose of which was to trash our elders. Among the events we organized were “The Crimes Of The Beats,” in which we attempted to undo the deification of Jack Kerouac and the whole Beatnik movement. Another event was a mock poetry slam in which we presented “translations” of poems from the New Yorker into plain, everyday English.
Indeed, the events put together by The Unbearables were more like punk rock shows than anything else. I remember one of our readings at a gallery in Soho where the audience, and many of the readers, ended up throwing rolls of toilet paper, chocolate éclairs (my girlfriend had brought dessert), cigarette butts, and paper airplanes at each other. Then we started dousing one another with beer or wine, falling from our chairs, and shouting obscenities to whoever was reading at the time—all out of our active appreciation of culture. No one took the least bit umbrage at the unruliness of the event, not the audience, not the readers, not even the gallery owner. But I thought that it was only in New York where an event with this kind of spirit could happen. And although not all our readings there were like this, I believed that New York was the only place with an environment where there was always the possibility that things could happen this way.
— Jose Padua